Thursday, January 29, 2009

What the State of the State means to civil liberties in 2009

Governor Doyle just gave his State of the State Address (PDF or watch it on Wisconsin Eye) and it was a mixed bag in terms of civil liberties.

While it is true that we are all facing hard times with our current economy and a large state deficit, we can't ignore how important it is to have a budget that includes a plan for educational equity in school funding, repealing or at least defunding Real ID, and including health insurance coverage for the domestic partners of all state employees, among many other issues.

“The ACLU of Wisconsin applauds the Governor’s commitment to public education and changing the way that schools are funded," said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. "We hope that the Governor establishes comprehensive school funding reform that provides an adequate education for all Wisconsin students. Reform must ensure that all children have an adequate education, whether they are in Superior, Crandon, or Milwaukee; whether they live in concentrated poverty, are English language learners, or have other obstacles in their paths.”

The Governor is right to demand a change in how Wisconsin deals with drunken driving, but the call for sobriety checkpoints will only subject innocent drivers to suspicionless searches.

“While drunken driving is a serious issue, the ACLU of Wisconsin is disappointed that the Governor chose to stress sobriety checkpoints in his State of the State address. We believe that there are more cost effective ways to deter drunken drivers, ones that do not offend the civil liberties of innocent drivers. We urge the Legislature to concentrate on other measures.”

While the Governor can't include every issue in his State of the State Address, we hope to see more attention to details including a reasonable state position on the now-discredited federal Real ID program and a commitment to providing health insurance coverage to the same sex domestic partners of all state employees.

Stay tuned to Cap City Liberty and ACLU-WI.org for more on the budget and its relationship to civil liberties and equality.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Enjoy your Data Privacy Day

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin commends Senator Erpenbach and his fellow cosponsors for their bipartisan leadership to pass a resolution recognizing today as Data Privacy Day.

"Privacy rights need to be defended year-round," said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. "Today is a great day to recognize how we can protect ourselves against identity theft, encroaching surveillance and data insecurity."

The ACLU has been in the center of courtrooms, legislative hearings and the media nationwide to show what is wrong with public video surveillance, why the Real ID program doesn't secure our identities and should be overturned, and how government surveillance technology is outpacing legal restraints to abuses of power.

We hope we are heading into a new era of governmental recognition of the right to privacy. Today's resolution is the first step to finding a balance among safety, security, technology and privacy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Downtown Madison on candid camera? More surveillance proposals...

Will bartenders start saying "smile!" instead of "whatcha drinking?"

The discussion continues in downtown Madison, just as it does in communities across the country, about how to keep residents safer. Security cameras are typically brought up as an easy technological solution to safety challenges. But many new ACLU members are joining up because of their concerns about a whole spectrum of increasing surveillance. Examples range from the enormous (telecom's all-too-willingness to hand over sweeping, warrantless access to our phone conversations to the federal government) to the inconspicuous (surveillance cameras aren't just for banks anymore).

Downtown Madison, Inc., an advocacy group that promotes business and urban vitality in the downtown area recently responded to news reports on violence and alcohol-related crime. A part of their plan includes security cameras in area establishments. Businesses can certainly set up their own security cameras, but who is regulating how the cameras and data are used?

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Downtown bars and liquor stores are already scanning IDs. One campus area bar is taking pictures of customers when they enter. With the addition of more cameras, patrons need to ask what is happening to their personal ID data, their pictures and videos from surveillance. Is it going to be deleted at the end of an uneventful night or are video clips of dance floors going to end up on a DIY coeds go wild website?

Safety doesn't come from a camera. Both safety and freedom from surveillance only come from responsible actions of patrons and bar owners. Voice your opinion in the article's forum section, in a letter to the editor of the Wisconsin State Journal or the Capitol Times, or to Downtown Madison, Inc.

On a related note, we can also thank the Wisconsin State Senators and Assembly reps who sponsored a joint resolution (PDF) recognizing January 28th as Data Privacy Day. It's nice to have leaders recognize the right to privacy in the face of increasing surveillance, identity theft and data management bungles in both the private and public sectors.

Friday, January 23, 2009

ACLU of Wisconsin takes action on broken prison health care system

Breaking news…

ACLU Says Failure To Properly Administer Medicines At Wisconsin Prison Puts Women's Lives At Risk

While health care reform and universal health care are on the minds of many voters and politicians, women in Wisconsin prisons face an even worse reality.

The ACLU of Wisconsin, ACLU National Prison Project and the law firm of Jenner & Block today filed a motion in federal court seeking an immediate halt to the dangerously dysfunctional health care and drug system for prisoners at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution, Wisconsin's largest women's prison.

The failure of prison officials at Taycheedah to ensure that prisoners properly receive medication has forced numerous women to endure unnecessary and prolonged illness, injury, pain and hospitalization and all prisoners receiving medications are at a significant risk of harm and even death. The motion charges that prison officials have known for years that prisoners have been at significant risk, but despite knowing ways to reduce that risk have simply failed to take the actions necessary to do so.

"The medication system at Taycheedah is a disaster waiting to happen," said Gabriel Eber, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. "For some medications, there is not even a system of checking for dangerous interactions between drugs before a prisoner starts taking a new prescription. The clock is ticking while the state gambles with the health and safety of over 700 women."

No matter what their crime, medical neglect should not be a part of their sentence. And the lack of health care and insurance can be linked to crimes that land women in jail in the first place: from alcoholism to substance abuse and mental illness. Our prisons now are filled with people who once could get treatment from hospitals.

At Taycheedah, medications - including powerful psychiatric medications - are administered to prisoners by correctional officers with no medical training. As a result, prisoners frequently receive medications prescribed for other prisoners and overdoses of their own medications. Taycheedah is one of the few state prisons in the nation that does not require nurses or similarly trained medical personnel to administer prisoners' medications.

"Taycheedah's medication system causes needless pain and suffering," said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director for the ACLU of Wisconsin. "The Constitution prohibits the state from ignoring a substantial threat to the health and safety of the women at Taycheedah." The ACLU of Wisconsin first filed a class-action lawsuit in 2006 to get the state to provide accurate and timely prescriptions and health care for the female prisoners.

More on this issue is online: copy of the motion, information on the ACLU’s work for the rights of incarcerated people, and more information on how to support the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Stimulate public transit, updates on voting rights, US Senate approves equal pay, and more

Civil liberties news in review...

Environmental Justice
The ACLU of Wisconsin has many suggestions for the Governor to make our state government less discriminatory, protective of civil liberties and better for all people. But while the federal stimulus bill is being debated by the national legislature, we suggest that any “shovel-ready” projects we spend federal dollars on go into programs for public transit, rather than more highways. “For civil rights and environmental justice reasons, transit development should be one of Wisconsin’s highest priorities,” stated ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. “For too many years, communities of color - who are much more likely to be transit dependent than other groups - have been left behind by transportation spending.” For people without cars or drivers licenses, getting to jobs the stimulus is supposed to produce would be impossible without public transportation. Making this a priority will be a better environmental and economic investment.

Racial Justice
And I know that this blog usually focuses on Wisconsin state civil liberties news or really important national ACLU action alerts, but I was really shocked to see this story about how a school in Mississippi just had their first integrated high school prom. Actor Morgan Freeman footed the bill for the shin dig and a documentary crew was there to make a film which premiered last week at Sundance. Some families still had a whites-only, separate prom. We shouldn’t forget that even though millions of people celebrated a historic election and a victory for racial justice this week, fighting racism continues to be at the heart of the ACLU’s commitment to civil rights from Brown v. Board of Education to today’s struggle for educational adequacy and equity.

Voting Rights
Did you hear that Senator Herb Kohl is a co-sponsor of a Weekend Voting Act? He just introduced it as an option for voters who can’t get to the polls on the first Tuesday of November. More voting options help democracy. Good job!

Van Hollen drops GAB lawsuit appeal after they agree to do back checks, in the more reasonable post-election clean up period anyway.

The state Supreme Court said they won’t pull together a plan to settle disputes on pending redistricting after the 2010 census. They are leaving the legislature to hash it out. For a citizen-friendly resource on redistricting and the implications for both democracy and partisan controversies, check out the Brennan’s Center report.

Separation of Church and State
FFRF drops Green Bay lawsuit appeal after no nativity in 2008 season, but takes up the issue of MATC closing for Good Friday.

Women’s Rights
Hey. The US Senate thinks women should get equal pay. Radicals! Now the bill goes back to the House for final consideration. The ACLU applauds the vote.


And in case you missed the national ACLU director on the Colbert Report...

Take action: Thank President Obama for acting to Close Guantanamo and stop torture

This week has been a extraordinary time for civil liberties and our country. And we should all pat ourselves on the back for helping make this moment happen.

Just 48 hours into his presidency, Barack Obama took decisive action on civil liberties -- issuing four executive orders that set a new path towards an America we can be proud of.

All those petitions ACLU members signed, actions members and activists have taken and contributions they have made are paying off in dramatic fashion. Because -- make no mistake -- President Obama’s decisive acts of leadership wouldn’t be possible without ACLU supporters laying the groundwork.

We refused to listen to those who said the ACLU was being idealistic, unrealistic and even crazy to expect a new President to act this quickly. And by acting on our convictions, we have helped make this a remarkable day for the Constitution and the rule of law.

Anyone can take a moment to thank President Obama for acting so quickly -- and urge him to keep moving forward.

With four executive orders yesterday, our new President:
- Ordered Guantánamo Bay shut down
- Banned torture
- Ordered a full review of U.S. detention policies and procedures, and
- Delayed the trial of Ali al-Marri, an ACLU client whose case is at the center of the Supreme Court’s review of indefinite detention policies.

We’re seeing -- right before our eyes -- what it means to have a President who respects the Constitution and honors the rule of law. Please sign our “Thank You for Acting” message to President Obama -- not simply because he has earned our gratitude, but because he will need our ongoing support if we want him to follow through on crucial civil liberties and human rights priorities.

This isn’t just about sending a message of thanks to Obama. It’s about sending a message to anyone who dares to stand in our way as we act to restore the Constitution and reclaim America’s reputation.

In the last 24 hours, more than 30,000 ACLU supporters have already signed our “Thank You for Acting” message to the President. Count yourself among them. Please act right now.

Sincerely,
Anthony D. Romero
Executive Director
ACLU

Thursday, January 22, 2009

ACLU continues to defend reproductive freedom one step at a time

Check out Louise Melling's original post on the Daily Kos.

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade:

In the wake of President Obama’s inauguration and on the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it is tempting to use this occasion to recite a litany of policies we want our new legislators to enact: from ensuring contraceptive equity in Wisconsin, to reversing the Bush administration’s midnight rule allowing a broad range of health care providers to refuse basic reproductive health services, to rescinding the global gag rule that withholds international aid from family planning services.

While these policy changes are important, they all will remain vulnerable to the ebb and flow of politics if we do not also do our part to change the public conversation about abortion. Reproductive freedom is essential to ensuring equality: we each must be free to make profoundly personal decisions about our reproductive lives without unwarranted government intrusion. As with all freedoms, there are limits. But a government that respects the personal integrity of its people both interferes in these essentially private decisions as little as possible and helps ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make these decisions responsibly.

We can continue with the politics of abortion we have known for a generation, one that has exploited ambivalence and fear for political gain. Or we can learn from this past year and take this moment of opportunity and hope to start a new conversation, one that begins with the understanding that both the decision to have a child and the decision to have an abortion come from a place of profound respect for the value of life and a strong commitment to ensuring a better life for all.

Another step toward equality in Wisconsin is to encourage our legislators to ensure contraceptive equity. Judges have ruled on the need for insurance companies to cover prescription contraceptives and outpatient services so as not to discriminate on the basis of gender. Writing contraceptive equity into law is fundamental to any efforts to reform health care, protect workers and stand up for gender equality.

- Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director, ACLU of Wisconsin
- Louise Melling, Director, national ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Top ten to-do list for President Obama

Tuesday marks an officially new federal administration and the ACLU has a few ideas on how we can restore civil rights and liberties. We even have a top ten list.

A local radio station WORT's news reporter, Craig McComb, visited the ACLU of Wisconsin's statewide activist conference last year where he first heard about the ACLU's transition plan for the new administration. Craig then gathered responses from local and state activists to address the critical need for immediate action to restore the rule of law.

Each segment is around five minutes long. Listen in and then send your own letter to President Obama to ask him to close Guantanamo, end the abuses of federal power, and take our country back to basic, Constitutional rights.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Legal observers document large Milwaukee protest

On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 6th, five volunteers and staff from the ACLU of Wisconsin stood in the Milwaukee rain and slush making certain that the approximately 230 protesters who had gathered to protest Israel’s actions in Gaza were able to exercise their Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of speech and assembly.

Milwaukee protest, 1/6/09

ACLU legal observers document protesters' rights

Legal Observers work as non-partisan legal witnesses at protests, demonstrations, elections and other events to apprise people of their rights and record any unusual or unlawful actions perpetrated by law enforcement.

ACLU volunteer makes notes about protest details

“We’re not here to make any judgment regarding the opinions of the protesters: we’re here making sure they can exercise their right to protest”, said Emilio De Torre, Youth and Program Director for the ACLU of WI. “You can see us all around the state. We’re the ones with the bright yellow shirts that say “legal observers” and the tattoos that say, “attorney work product”.

Emilio coordinates legal observation with a volunteer

For more information about how to become a non-partisan legal observer, contact Emilio in the Milwaukee office or Stacy in Madison.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Green Bay alderwoman stands up by sitting down, privacy rights versus free info, virginity pledges don't work and more

Civil liberties news in review...

Free Speech
Recently there was a little controversy regarding a Green Bay city council alderwoman who did not give a patriotic vets organization a standing ovation when a flag plaque was donated to the city. The essence of the debate was that Alderwoman Jeffreys questioned the inclusion of Columbus Day on the plaque and did not stand to show her disapproval. The council president Wery is demanding a public apology and is suggesting censure while Alderwoman Jeffreys is asserting her free speech rights.

Privacy
This is an interesting article on the issue of background checks and licensed medical professionals. The Wisconsin State Journal was requesting information from the state to do background checks and ran into some major hurdles and privacy constraints. The end of the article points to a law passed in 2000 where Senator Erpenbach added an amendment in order “to cut down on the solicitations (medical professionals) got (and) make it difficult for companies to profit from this information.” The restriction then made it more difficult for the WSJ journalists to seek background information about doctors. This is one more example of the tension between the public’s right to know (is my doctor a crook?) and the privacy rights of individuals (can companies get a way with abusing public, governmental records for profit?).

Reproductive Rights
The conservative Christian Alliance Defense Fund and other anti-abortion groups have dusted up a controversy about the new proposed plan for UW Health’s Madison Surgery Center to start offering abortion services, even up to the second trimester (otherwise unavailable statewide). The ADF is alleging that the plan will violate UW Health staff’s religious right to refuse to participate in medical practices they don’t agree with, and that state funds would be used for abortion services. The UW Health has said that their policy on allowing staff the right to appropriately refuse is clear and fair, and that abortion services would only be paid for by insurance or out-of-pocket payments. The big picture goes beyond the personal, health or economic reasons women need abortion services. With the Bush administration’s last-minute push to change federal Department of Health and Human Services’ rules regarding refusal rights, the civil liberties implications have been put out of balance. Now medical professionals have greater power to dictate the limitations of women’s reproductive options. The Obama administration needs to roll back the unbalanced new rules and the state of Wisconsin needs to pass real legislation that draws a bright line between women’s right to reproductive freedom and the responsibility of medical service providers to have fair policies for both their staff and their patients. See the articles in the Cap Times and in the Wisconsin State Journal. Read more on where the ACLU stands on the balance of reproductive rights and religious liberty.

And did you see this article in the Washington Post about a new study that shows that teens who take “virginity pledges” though programs that focus on abstinence until marriage are just as likely to have sex as teens who don’t? And the study furthermore shows that those teens who don’t take virginity pledges are more likely to use contraception and safer sex practices. The study from Johns Hopkins, which appears in this month’s Journal of Pediatrics, is different because the teens who are compared share similar values, whereas previous studies did not. This lends more evidence to the inadequacy and even legitimate public health concerns with abstinence-only programs. Kudos to Wisconsin Governor Doyle for continuing to refuse federal funds for abstinence-only curricula: even when facing a budget deficit, abstinence-only programs do more harm than good. Read more on why comprehensive sex education is better for students and for our community.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New Year's Resolution: volunteer with the ACLU of Wisconsin

Volunteering and making a positive difference is as popular a New Year's resolution as other ways to improve a person's life and health. There is a lot of volunteerism to be done, particularly during an economic crunch.

In 2009 Americans will have a lot of work to do. Hopefully, we will be paid for our work. Sometimes when we work to make things better for people, we don’t get paid in cash.

Freedom is just as good as cash. Freedom makes our society stronger. It makes one person just as important as another. Freedom allows families to teach children good values. It means that we can look to the future without being tied to old ways.

Government officials, powerful special interests, and reactionary institutions all try to limit our freedom. They try to deny us our rights. We can use these rights to protect ourselves from government abuse. Civil liberties are rights. Civil liberties include the right to free speech, religious liberty, equal protection under the law, and the right to vote.

You can protect our rights by joining with others. As a group we increase our power.

We need people to share their time, talent and enthusiasm. Artists, musicians, event planners, fund raisers, media specialists, computer/web geeks, and legislation/issue trackers all have a place with the ACLU no matter where you live in Wisconsin.

The American Civil Liberties Union is a group that protects everyone’s rights. You can work to help the ACLU protect rights for free. Your reward will be priceless.

- Chris Ahmuty, ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director