Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Demand that America Holds Those Who Authorized Torture Accountable

Call Congress Today! It's time to remind our elected officials that we need them to close Guantanamo, end military commissions, reject indefinite detention and demand accountability for torture policies.

There are lots of details on Obama's consideration of renewing policies of indefinite detention in this ProPublica/Washington Post article.

They especially need a reminder that we have not forgotten about why military commissions compromise fairness in our justice system. President Obama should not fail his intentions to restore America by allowing for "due process light."

Increasingly press reports indicate the Obama administration is not only planning to revive the failed military commissions system to try detainees, but will also continue the Bush administration’s policies of holding detainees indefinitely without charge. These disappointing actions on the part of the Obama administration serve as a reminder that no matter which party controls the White House or Congress we must remain ever-vigilant and engaged in our fight to protect freedom and justice.

This is why the ACLU and scores of coalition partners are mobilizing activists to demand that America returns to the rule of law and holds those who authorized torture accountable.

You can do this today by calling your member of Congress and letting your legislators know that it’s time…

…to close Guantanamo
…end the military commissions permanently
…reject indefinite detention
…demand accountability

Our Call Alert allows you to look up and call your members of Congress and helps us to track the outcome of the call. It also allows you to tell you friends about the alert to help generate even more calls. To participate, visit our action website today. Tell your legislators to:

# Close Guantanamo. The president has announced his intention to close the prison by January 2010. Congress should work with the President to ensure the prison is closed and the individuals held there are charged and prosecuted or repatriated.

# End military commissions permanently. These kangaroo courts didn’t work under the Bush administration and cosmetic changes in the Obama administration won’t work either. The system is fatally flawed. Federal courts can provide a true measure of justice, while respecting the rule of law and upholding American values.

# Reject indefinite detention. As Americans, we hold ourselves to a higher standard. Our Constitution and core values demand that we prosecute crime where evidence exists and release individuals where evidence of wrongdoing is lacking or non-existent mere suspicion is not enough to deny anyone due process. We must hold true to our values and reject any attempt to give any president the ability to detain people indefinitely without charge.

# Support the appointment of an independent prosecutor. As more and more evidence comes to light about the treatment and interrogation of detainees, the evidence demands a thorough investigation of the abuse, the architects of that abuse and prosecution of any crimes that were committed. Just as important, the American people deserve a full and fair accounting of what took place to ensure torture never happens in our name again.

For more information on how the ACLU is working to keep America Safe and Free, visit our national website.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

ACLU of WI Reaches Out to Muslims in Milwaukee, Youth Organizers in Stevens Point

ACLU of Wisconsin Youth and Program Director Emilio De Torre reports from some of our recent educational efforts across the state...

Saturday June 13: Milwaukee Islamic Da'wa Center
The Da'wa center hosted the ACLU of Wisconsin along with Assistant US Attorney Richard Frohling and FBI Agent Margaret Thill for an information session on racial profiling, religious liberty and stereotyping.

"The lively open discussion challenged both community and guests to address the many issues that affect the diversity of Muslims, immigrants and black people in our post-911 communities and airports," said De Torre. "One of the many questions that came up regarded the consequences of government actions on American Muslims' exercise of their beliefs."

The ACLU has been working on educational efforts to raise the American public's greater awareness of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim discrimination. Three days after De Torre spoke at the Islamic Da'wa in Milwaukee, the ACLU issued a report, "Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity" on the impact of restrictions of Muslims' exercise of their right to practice their faith through charitable giving. The ACLU created this video on the subject:

"By the end of our discussion at the Da'wa, I think most of the participants realized that more education and outreach was needed to dispel lies and stereotypes about Muslims in particular," said De Torre. "Hopefully, this will be the first of many open community events at the Da'wa Center to educate the public on their civil liberties."

In 2006, the ACLU compiled a summary of all of the post-9/11 problems with discrimination, racial profiling and detention they were taking to the courts.

Tuesday, June 9th: Stevens Point 2009 Wisconsin State Prevention Conference
Sassy and sexy Stevens Point was the home for the 2009 Wisconsin State Prevention Conference, and ACLU of Wisconsin staff Emilio De Torre and Jason Hargis, along with interns Maggie Piery and Jeanette Martin facilitated an exciting three-hour workshop on Youth Organizing and Outreach.

“We were invited to present this workshop because of our many successes in messaging and using theatre, technology and social media to effectively organize young people around civil liberties and civil rights,” said De Torre.

“There were many people in attendance who shared their enthusiasm and desire to experiment with new methods of organizing in addition to continuing the tried and true ‘face to face' relationship-building organizing philosophy," he said.

Want us to facilitate a workshop at your conference? Give us a tweet. Or find our more about our youth programs on our website.

ACLU Legal Observers Witness Racine Rally for Fair Immigration Reform.

Legal observing isn't always reserved for rainy days.

This Monday, June 15, ACLU of Wisconsin legal observers hit the beaches of Racine to watch the end of the year rally and party for some 250 students who gathered to support fair immigration reform.

Many parents, various school staff and Voces de la Frontera staff and volunteers were on hand to assist at the event. The rally/party on the beach was scheduled to end at 3:00 p.m., but as the day wore on more and more people from the beach and the city poured in.

There was a large police presence throughout, but they and city medics were available to attend to a small altercation at approximately 3:00 p.m. Unfortunately, it was reported that after the legal observers had left, more altercations occurred and larger police presence was deployed.

According to the Racine Journal Times there were 22 squad cars in the parking lot at one time. Two arrests were made in connection to the incident. The ACLU of Wisconsin encourages people to both exercise their right to PEACEABLY assemble as well as active participation in community.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

WI Senate: Undocumented Students Need In-State Tuition Qualification

On June 17, 2009 the ACLU of Wisconsin’s executive director Christopher Ahmuty sent the following statement to members of the Wisconsin State Senate. He urged them to support a provision in the state budget which would charge some undocumented Wisconsin high school graduates resident tuition at the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Technical College Systems. At this time, the Senate is considering not accepting this proposal in their version of the budget.

“The failure of the federal government’s handling of immigration (regardless of which party was in control) is evident in the inequitable situation facing undocumented children who are qualified to attend the University of Wisconsin,” Ahmuty wrote.

Even though these children could not be denied access to elementary or secondary education on the basis of their immigration status, their chances of attending the University of Wisconsin are very small. Very few of the 400-600 undocumented students who graduate from Wisconsin high schools each year can attend the UW for a variety of reasons. First, most of them are poor despite their own hard work and the hard work of their tax paying parents. Second, these young students are not eligible for federal or state financial aid. And third, the University currently charges them nonresident tuition, which they cannot afford.

“There is a provision in the Assembly passed version of the state budget that would make a start at helping these students become productive Wisconsinites,” Ahmuty continued.

It would exempt non-citizens from nonresident tuition if they meet three requirements: they graduate from a Wisconsin high school, they live in Wisconsin continuously for at least three years following their high school enrollment, and they apply for a permanent resident visa as soon as they are eligible.

The Wisconsin State Senate should adopt the same provision as the Assembly. On civil liberties and public policy grounds this is an important step. It will not solve all the problems raised by messy federal laws, but it will allow Wisconsin to join ten other states, including Illinois, that charge their state’s undocumented high school graduates instate tuition.

“From a civil liberties perspective it is difficult to flatly deny a group of otherwise qualified students a benefit afforded their high school classmates. This is particularly unfair considering that their undocumented status is almost always the result of their parents’ actions,” Ahmuty continued.

The fact that federal law denies them financial aid and other benefits says something about the failure of federal lawmakers who are denying these students their just desserts. Until federal law is fixed, it is still possible charge resident tuition based on the students’ attendance at a Wisconsin high school.

From a public policy standpoint there is an additional reason to encourage these students. It is in our state’s financial interest. For a very small outlay of funds, the state has an opportunity to address our impending shortage of highly skilled workers. Given the fact that eligible students will be applying for permanent resident status, it is likely that they will make their home in Wisconsin. We have a desperate need for young highly motivated and highly skilled university graduates. We cannot afford to deny a group of deserving students today, when tomorrow they will add to our workforce, pay taxes, and contribute to our society in a host of ways.

“The ACLU of Wisconsin urges the State Senate to be forward thinking and make this change for the benefit of the students and our state,” Ahmuty concluded.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Q&A on Contraceptive Equity and Religious Discrimination: Budget Provision Thumbs Up

The Wisconsin Assembly just gave the green light to their version of the state budget this weekend. Contraceptive equity was one of the debated items: the policy would require all insurance companies that provide prescriptions to include contraceptive drugs and devices in their coverage.

Birth control is a basic part of health care for women and when most Wisconsinites get their health care through their employer, contraceptive equity is essential to workplace fairness.

But critics of the policy decry religious discrimination, particularly when citing religious-based health care providers' health care benefits for their own employees. The ACLU of Wisconsin supports contraceptive equity and below is a Q&A with Executive Director Chris Ahmuty on how the policy strikes a constitutionally approved balance between the rights of patients, workers and institutions.

Should a nurses’ aide at a hospital owned by a Catholic religious order or the cafeteria lady at a Catholic parochial school be denied access to birth control because their employers’ are offended on “moral grounds”?
No. But, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference appears to want to be able to do just that. The conference has asked the Wisconsin Legislature to exempt Catholic institutions from a provision in the state budget that confirms the duty of all Wisconsin employers to include contraceptive drugs and devices among the drugs covered by their health insurance plans.

Do all employees of all Catholic institutions have to accept that their employers won’t allow them access to birth control even though it is medically indicated and morally acceptable to the employee?
No, unless the members of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference are able to exempt themselves and other Catholic affiliated agencies from fair employment laws regarding health insurance benefits. The conference would discriminate against workers who carry out the same jobs as workers at agencies that are not religiously-affiliated.

Is religious liberty impeded when religiously-affiliated employers are asked to abide by anti-discrimination laws?
No. Wisconsin and federal law already exempts religious institutions from the prohibitions on employment discrimination, if the employee in question is a member of the clergy or a religion instructor.

What should the Wisconsin Legislature do?
The ACLU of Wisconsin urges them to adopt this budget provision that lets all employers know, if they are going to provide prescription coverage in their health insurance plans, they must include contraceptive drugs and devices. The budget provision does not need to be amended. Section 3198d of Assembly Substitute Amendment 1 to AB75 codifies contraceptive equity.

What can I do to get contraceptive equity passed?
The ACLU of Wisconsin is a member of the Prevention First Coalition, a broad-base of organizations that support contraceptive equity and other important reproductive health care policies. You can be a part of the coalition and ask your state Senator to support contraceptive equity today.

Find out more about the work the ACLU is doing on protecting the balance between religious liberty and the right of women to have safe, legal and barrier-free access to reproductive health care.

Also check out Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin's Nicole Safar on Wisconsin Public Radio defending contraceptive equity and women's right to be free from discrimination in insurance coverage.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

WI State Assembly to vote on budget Thursday - ACLU watch items

The State Assembly is looking to vote on the state budget Thursday. The majority democrats have to pass this budget is slim. It is unlikely that any republicans will cast a vote in favor of the budget. There is a democrat, Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer from Manitowoc who has said he won’t vote for it, partly due to the domestic partnership provisions (what makes me think he’s not voting “no” because the provisions don’t give same-sex couples ENOUGH basic rights?).

*** Take Action: Write to your legislators and tell them to vote "yes" on the domestic partnership provisions in the state budget***

But for the ACLU of Wisconsin’s perspective on some of the budget items the Assembly will be looking at tomorrow, read on. Most of these items we support, but we often wish lawmakers could do more.

We are watching for all of these things, but we are particularly encouraging lawmakers to not barter away contraceptive equity and prescription protection for women in Wisconsin. These policies are needed and overdue.

Follow the ACLU Madison on Facebook and Twitter for updates on the budget.

Provisions adopted by the Joint Finance Committee:
Domestic Partnerships – the provisions to establish a domestic partner registry, family leave, retirement and insurance benefits are a good thing, but it isn’t the same as marriage. The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation sued the State over the denial of same-sex partner family protections and employee benefits. LFB #324 and 391, adopted.

Contraceptive equity in insurance plans – since most of us get our insurance through our work, all prescription drug plans in Wisconsin should also cover birth control. It is not only good for the reproductive health and rights of women but it also addresses what is essentially a workplace discrimination issue. Motion #443 from Taylor/Mason, adopted.

Prescription protection – would require every pharmacy to fill FDA-approved contraceptive prescriptions and devices in a timely manner. This provision strikes the needed balance between the right of women to have the health care they need with the respect of the religious beliefs of individual pharmacists who would choose to deny birth control prescriptions. Motion #481 from Sherman/Robson, adopted.

FoodShare benefit access for immigrants – to deny assistance to qualified immigrants and refugees would be discrimination. The State should continue to provide this assistance (to what turns out to be less than 1,000 people) especially during a recession when people need it most. LFB #443 adopted.

Female offender reintegration and mental health programs – untreated mental illness or addiction and crime too often come together. The budget provides for funding for treatment programs, but there are still serious deficiencies to the corrections systems that begin with overcrowding and end with poor conditions. The ACLU of Wisconsin is suing the Department of Corrections over the inadequate medical and mental health care provided to the female inmates at the Taycheedah Corrections Institution. We are concerned that transferring this funding from the Department of Health Services to the Department of Corrections for a new reentry program will not be enough to remedy the serious deficiencies in the system. LFB #412 and 288, adopted.

Racial profiling – the budget includes a provision to collect data from traffic stops to determine the extent of racial profiling in Wisconsin. The ACLU of Wisconsin supports data collection as a useful tool for police managers who want to improve police-driver contacts across the whole state as adopted by JFC. LFB #123, adopted.

Low-income qualifications for public defenders – the current state standard for indigent legal defense hasn’t changed since the 80s and probably wouldn’t pass a constitutional test. Any increase in the income threshold to qualify for a public defender would be progress, but would only be a band aid on the disproportionate incarceration of low-income people in our prisons. LFB #617, adopted.

Milwaukee voucher school assessments and financing – when voucher schools students pay for their tuition with tax dollars, there are inevitable questions about not only the separation of church and state but also the rerouting of resources away from public schools. In Milwaukee, the voucher school experiment has been a failure: the program is not cost effective and are a burden to Milwaukee property tax payers. Test scores aren’t even much better than in public schools. Transparency, accountability and performance measures should be available to the public and researchers. LFB #642 and 643, modified by JFC.

Environmental concerns with highway expansion – the I-94 north-south freeway expansion raises serious environmental impact and justice concerns. Expansion will put a greater burden on low-income people and minorities. State funds should have been rerouted to invest in public transit to avoid expensive urban sprawl. LFB #778, adopted.

American Indian tribal revenues for offender reentry – the Wisconsin American Indian tribal community reintegration program would route money from tribal revenues to provide reentry programs for adult ex-offenders back into their tribal community. If successful, it could be an example for other reentry programs. Motion #534 from Pocan/Miller, adopted.

DREAM Act for Wisconsin – the provision to allow children of undocumented immigrants to get an in-state tuition rate if they have lived in the state and graduated from high school here would be not only good for the students but would also allow more tuition-paying students to go to college. Without this provision, they might not be able to afford to go to university at all. LFB #812, adopted.

Limited drivers cards for undocumented immigrants – not a citizen? Papers caught up in immigration bureaucracy? Working to get the money to work the immigration system? You’d still need a drivers license to get to work. This two-tier system would allow people to drive if they cannot show a legal immigration status. This would have a requirement that having this drivers card would not subject people to immigration checks. It’s a compromise (we need licensed drivers) and could subject immigrants to discrimination but immigrants’ rights and some law enforcement groups are asking for this fix. Motion #615, adopted.

Veterans mental health services – mental health care for returning Iraq vets has been in short supply. We support additional resources for vet health care, but the budget should also require that the problems that have surfaced at some federal VA facilities do not occur at our state VA hospitals. LFB #830, adopted.

Follow the ACLU Madison on Facebook and Twitter for updates on the budget.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

UW Regents decide to balance student rights, university interests

One of the issues we’ve been tracking is the proposal that was before the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents regarding the student discipline code. While student misbehavior and pranks have been the subject of pop culture from Horse Feathers to Animal House, complaints from neighbors near UW campuses finally nudged Regents into reconsidering how students are punished on campus for their off-campus municipal and criminal violations.

But while we collectively hold UW students accountable for their behavior, the discipline system should embrace the same constitutional standards of due process and equal protection as any other part of the criminal justice system. Objections to the proposed changes arose from students and student rights advocates (like the United Council of UW Students and the ACLU of Wisconsin) questioned the removal of the right to hearings, appeals or legal council.

Students lobbied the Board of Regents at listening sessions and voiced their concerns. This article in the UW River Falls Voice quoted a student who said the proposed changes “butcher” student rights.

The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation legal department sent a letter to the Board outlining our concerns. We supported changes to the proposal that would regulate, not eliminate, the option for accused students to have lawyers present at hearings. This would put the decision in the hands of a hearing examiner to keep a lawyer from cross-examining a victim of sexual assault. We also asked for a hearing examiner (rather than an investigating officer) to decide on a clear and demonstrated nexus between the off-campus conduct and a significant disruption of campus life and the interest of the University.

Ultimately the Board changed the rules in a way that balanced the interest of the university system and students’ rights. The decision is still not without some controversy from opponents, but the compromise was reached due to both the fair deliberation of the Regents and the persistence of students’ rights advocates. Read more about how the education committee of the Board of Regents made more balanced changes.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Madison students speak up about age discrimination, radio show Sunday

One of the best parts of my job is when I get to talk to young people about civil liberties. It’s been a while since I’ve been in high school, but I seem to remember that anyone (I mean ANYONE) who would actually listen to my questions about my right to personal expression, religious freedom, the civil rights movement and more would be pretty cool. Little did I know that getting the chance to answer those questions would be even better.

Take the media history class at LaFollette High School. This Madison area classroom has spent the whole semester talking about the media: its role in American democracy, structures from the underground to the corporately consolidated, and how media impacts our lives and our political system. These students welcomed ACLU staffers to talk more about the First Amendment, the past 20 years of Supreme Court decisions that impact student expression rights, and what free speech means to them.

For their final project, the students are taking to the airwaves to bring what they learned about the media to the public. Wanting to pick a topic that was relevant to them, the students explored the issue of the appropriateness of the legal drinking age of 21. This led into a broader discussion of what it means to be an adult, what the law says, and how our society views the rights of young people.

The first installment of their project aired on the Madison community radio station, WORT 89.9 FM on Monday, June 1. You can find the show through the station’s archives – just scroll down to find the “Access Hour” on June 1st. The students got some experience on the microphone both live in the studio and through their interviews of their principal, the city mayor, insurance company reps, child development specialists and others who work with youth. They took phone calls and questions about youth rights and other young people got a chance to speak out about the discrimination they feel as they jump from one legal benchmark of becoming an adult to another.

The next time the students will be live on the air will be this Sunday, June 7 at noon on WTDY Talk Radio 1670 AM. You can go to their website to listen on-line too. Tune in and hear students exercise their freedom of speech as they talk about their rights. They will be taking questions on Sunday as well, so let them know that you are listening and support their project.

It was great to talk to them about the importance of free speech. It’s something that the ACLU is really famous for defending and being able to educate young people about the First Amendment is as fun as it is important. They all got copies of our Freedom FAQs (found on our ACLU of Wisconsin youth page) and more information on how they can get involved as student civil libertarians by finding us on Facebook.

For more information on the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation’s youth rights education program, contact Emilio in Milwaukee or Stacy in Madison.

- Stacy Harbaugh, ACLU of Wisconsin Madison Community Advocate

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Domestic Partner benefits lawsuit: the good, the bad and the hopeful

If you haven’t heard the news already, on Friday, May 29th a Wisconsin trial court dismissed the lawsuit that the ACLU of Wisconsin brought on behalf of state workers suing for health insurance and leave protections for their families and same-sex partners.

The bad news: the case was dismissed. The judge was bound by a prior decision from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals back in 1992.

The good news: the written decision is a testament to the unconstitutionality of denying state employees equality in worker benefits for their families.

The Court’s written opinion states: “The plaintiffs have offered a strong showing that the employment benefits in issue have been provided on a discriminatory basis. The defendants’ explanations offered for the continuing discrimination against these plaintiffs are unpersuasive and inadequate.”

“Losing doesn’t get any better than this,” said Larry Dupuis, Litigation Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “We knew we had an uphill battle in the trial court because of the earlier case. But the court agreed with us that discrimination based on sexual orientation should be subject to strict judicial review and that it is unconstitutional for the state to deny equal benefits.”

The Court also found that providing the benefits would not be barred by the anti-gay marriage amendment that passed in 2006.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in April 2005 on behalf of six lesbian state employees and their partners. The lawsuit charges that it is a violation of the state’s equal protection guarantees to deny lesbian and gay state employees access to the same health insurance and family leave protections that it provides to straight employees who are able to cover their spouses. The lawsuit was stalled for years because a number of Wisconsin municipalities tried to inject themselves into the lawsuit. The issue ultimately went up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled that they were not entitled to become a party to the litigation.

Governor Jim Doyle has repeatedly stated that he would like to provide lesbian and gay state employees with equal health insurance coverage. There is currently a provision in the Governor’s budget that successfully cleared the Joint Finance Committee. The budget is heading for the state Assembly for a vote. Identical budget bills need to be approved by the Assembly and the Senate before heading back to the Governor to sign. You can find out who represents you in the state Assembly and Senate and tell them how you feel about fairness for domestic partnerships.

“While we are heartened by the court’s decision, we urge the legislature to pass the domestic partner provision in the state budget so there will be no need to appeal,” added Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Our clients are forced to pay expensive prices for inferior health coverage and sometimes even to forego necessary care. They suffer every day this issue goes unresolved.”

Wisconsin Department of Corrections employee Jayne Dunnum and her partner, Robin Timm, pay nearly $450 a month for private insurance for Timm who works on the couple’s organic farm and food store in Platteville.

“We don’t care if it happens through the courts or the legislature. We just really need the health insurance coverage,” said Dunnum. “It’s a matter of basic fairness. I work just as hard has my straight colleagues and shouldn’t be denied the equal employment benefits.”

The case is Dunnum v. Department of Employee Trust Funds. The couples are represented by John Knight and Rose Saxe of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, Larry Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin, and cooperating attorneys Linda Roberson and Christopher Krimmer of the Madison law firm Balisle & Roberson.

Biographical information for all of the couples, today’s decision, the complaint, and additional information are available at the ACLU LGBT Get Busy Get Equal case profiles page.