Archive | February, 2009

Video: Rachel Maddow Champions Liberty at Saturday’s ACLU of Wisconsin Bill of Rights Celebration

24 Feb

Before one of the largest crowds in the recent history of the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Bill of Rights Celebration, special guest Rachel Maddow described how indefensible arguments that destroy civil liberties will always be struck down. Bad laws, from spying on Americans to banning same-sex marriage, do happen. But with the strength of citizen advocates and organizations like the ACLU, the arc of history always bends toward justice and freedom.

“When we have an honest debate about the issues bad policies won’t win.”
Special thanks go to our event’s very generous sponsors: Stacey Herzing, Mark Thomsen, Chris Abele, Legacy Bank, and Joseph Pabst and Ray Vahey.

ACLU of Wisconsin Bill of Rights Celebration Awards:
Also during the evening, the ACLU presented several awards to community activists who demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to civil liberties.

Sheila Cochran from the Milwaukee Area Labor Council AFL-CIO received the William Gorham Rice Civil Libertarian of the Year award for her leadership and dedication to labor organizing, coalition building, and election protection. Cochran spoke warmly about her partners in the struggle to protect voting rights and to fight back the perennial attempts to disassemble same-day voting in Wisconsin. The award was presented by Jeralyn Wendelberger.

Salvador Gomez received the Jack and Lucy Rosenberg Youth Civil Libertarian of the Year for his continued commitment to ACLU of Wisconsin educational and activist programs. He first became involved several years ago through his participation in the Other America Tour, an ACLU of Wisconsin youth program that promotes cultural awareness, action and responsibility. Since then, Gomez has lent his talent as a filmmaker to many ACLU programs including youth-friendly voting rights videos that were widely seen on YouTube and at the National ACLU Voting Symposium in Washington D.C. Salvador accepted the award on behalf of all of the young volunteers who are active in the ACLU of Wisconsin’s youth programs. The award was presented by David Glicklich.

Dianne Greenley, long-term board member and disability rights legal advocate, was honored with the Eunice Z. Edgar Lifetime Achievement award. Dianne served on the ACLU of Wisconsin board for twenty-five years. While Dianne was not able to receive the award in person (due to being away on vacation to the Galapagos Islands to see sea lions and blue-footed boobies) , her history of fighting for the rights of people with mental illness and her role as an important part of patients’ rights, community support programs and mental health services in the state was fondly articulated by Disability Rights of Wisconsin Executive Director, Lynn Breedlove. The award was presented by ACLU of Wisconsin Board President, Erik Guenther.

The Bill of Rights Celebration is an annual event which recognizes extraordinary leadership in the protection and advancement of civil rights and liberties in Wisconsin.

More on Rachel:
Rachel Maddow hosts MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” featuring her take on the biggest stories of the day, political and otherwise, and includes lively debate with guests from all sides of the issues, in-depth analysis and stories no other shows in cable news will cover. Maddow also continues to host “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America Radio.

In January of 2008, Maddow was named an MSNBC political analyst; she is a regular panelist on MSNBC’s “Race for the White House with David Gregory” and a frequent contributor on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” She has been the regular guest host for “Countdown,” has filled in for David Gregory on “Race,” and has been a regular panelist on MSNBC’s 2008 election coverage.

Student Free Speech – Celebrate 40 Years!

24 Feb

The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation is proud to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court decision on February 24th. This landmark decision was an important step in recognizing the essential rights of young people to express themselves and enjoy their First Amendment rights.

In 1969, the Supreme Court decided in Tinker v. Des Moines that students do not “shed their constitutional rights of freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The issue before the court was that of a 13 year-old junior high school student, Mary Beth Tinker, who over three years earlier was among a group of students who decided to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The school board heard about the protest action and passed a preemptive ban. Students who wore the arm bands to school were asked to remove them and if they did not, were sent home.

The ACLU represented the suspended students and argued before the Supreme Court that because the protest was not disruptive, their First Amendment rights were violated when they were punished. The “Tinker standard” refers to the balance between students’ right to free expression without intervention from authority unless it would cause a disruption.

Since then, however, student expression rights have been challenged. In 1988, the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision rolled back student rights from the 1969 Tinker case. While Tinker recognized student’s First Amendment rights to non-disruptive expression, the Hazelwood decision allowed school administrators to censor school publications if they could prove that they had a reasonable educational purpose for stopping articles from being published.

More recently, the 2005 Hosty v. Carter decision in the 7th Circuit Courts extended the Hazelwood decision to public colleges. The 7th Circuit covers Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. In the 2007 ACLU Morse v. Frederick case, a prank “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” sign was displayed by a student at an Olympic torch rally in Juneau, Alaska. Even though the event was not on school grounds nor sponsored by the school, his punishment for displaying the “pro-drug” message where other students could see it was supported by the Supreme Court.

Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington have all enacted laws to define and protect student publications and expression. An attempt to make a law to protect student speech was vetoed in Wisconsin in 1992.

For more on the work of the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation on youth civil liberties, visit our youth page, or visit our multimedia page to download our Freedom of Expression FAQ (PDF).

You can also read about the national ACLU’s new video on the relevance of Tinker today…

Beowulf and Breasts: Ye Olde Storme Breweth Anewe

17 Feb

The Menasha School District is considering a review of its policy on the classroom use of commercial films next week after a parent’s complaint prompted extra scrutiny of a syllabus for a mythology class.

The elective course on world mythology would have included the 2007 PG-13 feature film of “Beowulf” among its eight films that would be shown as a part of the 10th – 12th graders’ class. While the school district has a really clear policy about giving students and parents a chance to opt-out of objectionable school assignments, the school board might go back to the books and change their minds.

What is objectionable about “Beowulf” these days? Incomprehensible Old English? Violence? Neil Gaiman’s writing? Nope. It’s Angelina’s CGI animated, nipple-less breasts (of course the clip is on the Internet).

A flash of lady parts makes me nostalgic.

I remember when we struggled through Shakespeare’s writings in high school. I knew that if I worked hard enough, I would find classic themes of political power struggles in “Julius Caesar.” “Hamlet” would teach me more about power and loyalty and life and death. But it was “Romeo and Juliet” that seemed most relevant to a 16 year old’s hormonal brain. We all thought our crushes transcended our parent’s disapproval. We all thought if we didn’t get a chance to make out we would DIE.

But watching Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of “Romeo and Juliet” did more for our English class than give us a quick flash of naked boobs and butts. We giggled, sure. But the appropriateness and power of the film in our classroom was that we were able to hear the words that were not meant to be read on paper but rather spoken out loud. Shakespeare was a playwright and his words were meant to soak into our souls through our ears.

“Beowulf,” too, is said to be a poem from an oral tradition. Old English is an ancient language and the mythological stories of that time were written down only after being retold for generations. The written language is incomprehensible to modern English speakers, but when you hear it, the language is almost as recognizable as the themes of love, power and heroism. And hey, who doesn’t love a good dragon fight?

The school’s policy of offering opt-outs for age-appropriate material is fine as it stands. Students benefit from learning about the line where classic literature and pop culture meet. And if Angelina’s animated breasts are the worst thing that students see in our public schools today, I would think we should all count ourselves lucky. Very lucky indeed.

Right to Speak, Wrong Ideas: On Ward Connerly Speaking at UWM

16 Feb

On Wednesday, Ward Connerly is scheduled to speak at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee in another stop on his crusade against affirmative action. The Constitution allows people to speak their minds and Mr. Connerly has a right to speak his. Mr. Connerly is the man behind California Proposition 209, an anti-affirmative action referendum that passed in 1995.

“The ACLU of Wisconsin and its ACLU Student Alliance (ACLUSA) at UWM believe that the best way to respond to Connerly is to counter his speech with more speech,” said Angela Lang, UWM student and President of the university’s ACLU Student Alliance. “While ACLUSA members may be in attendance to observe, the ACLU is urging all students who may be offended by Connerly’s position not to heckle or otherwise disrupt his speech. We do suggest that they let others know how wrong Connerly is on affirmative action”

Since 1995 Connerly has spent his time spreading myths about affirmative action. We’d like to clear some of those up in advance of his visit.

Inequality and unfairness still exist in America and we still need deliberate remedies for everyone to have a fair chance.

Ideally, everyone in America would start out with an equal chance to succeed. Connerly falsely assumes this is the case when in fact, women and minorities continue to face discrimination in housing, poverty, glass ceilings, access to good schools, higher education and in the workplace. Others in society benefit from privileges like wealth and family connections, even parental literacy rates vary making some children less prepared for school and less likely to succeed in school as a result.

“Mr. Connerly would like people to believe that we have achieved some fictitious level of equality in America where white men are now discriminated against as a class,” said Christopher Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Connerly wants us to believe that the reason people do or don’t succeed is purely in their will to do so. We disagree profoundly. In fact, affirmative action helps to offset barriers that unfairly block the pathways of qualified Americans who are fully able to succeed. In so doing, it promotes equal opportunity in an otherwise unequal society. Affirmative action benefits families, businesses, coworkers, communities, and our entire society. It is not a “quota” system, nor is it ‘preferential treatment’.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin’s Student Alliance at the UW—Milwaukee can be contacted at

Censure issued to Marshfield Chief for comments on understaffed dispatch

13 Feb

Last month Marshfield Police Chief Joe Stroik was quoted in the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune on his opinion regarding the Wood County Dispatch Center. Stroik made comments about how he thought some shifts were dangerously understaffed. On Tuesday, the Wood County Public Safety Committee approved a letter of censure be sent to the Chief for his comments.

With the letter of censure, the county’s lawyers are suggesting that the Chief’s comments could be used in court if someone sued the county for negligence. But we should all be asking why our local governments are fearing lawsuits more than taking action to fix public safety issues. The Chief’s opinion should be evaluated on the basis of professional standards rather than the potential for liability.

The reality of the legal aspect of this issue goes like this: “If plaintiffs’ counsel, such as the ACLU, introduced statements such as Chief Stroik’s in a civil rights case, the statements would still have to be evaluated for accuracy,” said Laurence Dupuis the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Legal Director. “On the other hand, if the Public Safety Committee tries to prevent the Marshfield Police Chief from pointing out what he believes are deficiencies in the dispatch service, it could be argued that the County is guilty of recklessness and therefore potentially liable for expensive punitive damages,” Dupuis continued.

“The ACLU of Wisconsin believes that residents who have had their constitutional rights violated should have their day in court. It also believes that when a county’s decisions are made on the basis of litigation strategy instead of professional standards, then the public is poorly served,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director, Chris Ahmuty.

Take Action: New boss same as the old boss when it comes to the "state secrets" excuse?

11 Feb

This week, ACLU lawyers encountered a recurring — and troubling — obstacle in our lawsuit seeking justice for torture victims caught up in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. But this time, the objections were not coming from the Bush administration.

To our surprise and disappointment, the new Justice Department urged a federal appeals court to dismiss our lawsuit charging a Boeing subsidiary with providing critical support for the CIA’s rendition program based on the same “state secrets” claim that the Bush administration had repeatedly invoked to avoid any judicial scrutiny of its actions. During the course of the argument, one judge asked twice if the change in administration had any bearing on the Justice Department’s position. The attorney for the government said that its position remained the same.

This isn’t the kind of change we need if we want an America we can be proud of again.

If the judges rule in the government’s favor, our clients — who were tortured as part of the government’s rendition program — will never get their day in court.

We’re still hoping the court will rule in our favor and allow our case to move forward. But, in the meantime, we must do everything we can to end the abuse of the “state secrets” doctrine both in the courts and on Capitol Hill.

Senators Kennedy, Leahy, Specter and Representative Nadler (as well as Rep. Petri from Wisconsin) introduced legislation in 2008 to narrow the scope of the state secrets privilege — and open the courthouse doors to people who have suffered real and legitimate harm by the government. Clearly, this legislation is needed now more than ever.

Send a message to these members of Congress to let them know you support the State Secrets Protection Act.

This crucial civil liberties bill recognizes the need to take precautions when it comes to national security. But, it also acknowledges that courts have been competently managing the balance between the security of classified information and the right to a fair trial in criminal cases for years. And, most important of all, it makes it much more difficult for the government to abuse the state secrets doctrine to escape accountability for illegal behavior.

We can’t allow any administration to invoke state secrets to hide a reprehensible history of torture, rendition and the most grievous human rights violations.

Send a message to support the State Secrets Protection Act today.

Yesterday, the Obama administration had an opportunity to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition. But, instead, the Justice Department opted to stay the course.

Now, we must hope that the court will assert its independence, reject the government’s false claims of state secrets, and allow victims of torture and rendition their day in court.

Thanks for standing with us as we work to pursue justice on this critical civil liberties issue.

Anthony D. Romero
Executive Director

P.S. The ACLU has been working on this case for years. To learn more about rendition and the people impacted, watch our short video.

Tuberculosis patients belong in hospitals, not jails

10 Feb

Wisconsin jails and prisons are warehousing people with criminal convictions. Most of us accept this without questioning how we deal with human rights in our justice system. But when those people need medical care, the system routinely fails human rights.

Take the recent death of Marshall Wilburn in the Milwaukee County Jail. Wilburn had tuberculosis when he was arrested for a minor disorderly conduct charge. But instead of quarantining him in a hospital or another secure health care facility, Marshall was kept in jail by a City of Milwaukee court order. The order was based on an argument that Wilburn’s homelessness and refusal to get treatment for the TB made him a danger to himself and others.

“Untreated tuberculosis is a serious public health concern, but jails are designed to hold people accused of crime, not those who are homeless and need medical treatment,” said Larry Dupuis, the ACLU of Wisconsin’s legal director. “Criminal conduct may justify time in jail, but being homeless and noncompliance with medical treatment don’t.”

Based on media reports, it isn’t clear whether his disease was infectious when he was arrested, but he did agree to stay in jail and said he wanted to get well. If he cooperated with police, he might have cooperated with treatment in a hospital. But unless this option was on the table, the bottom line is that a jail isn’t a health care facility and isn’t made to have the resources to deal with this situation that ultimately led to Wilburn’s death in custody.

The state Supreme Court recently decided in the 2007 case, City of Milwaukee v. Washington, that a person with tuberculosis may not be put in jail for failing to comply with treatment, unless a jail is the “least restrictive place” the person can be safely and adequately treated. With adequate resources, there should almost always be less drastic ways to treat tuberculosis patients who do not follow doctors’ orders than putting them in jail.

Beaver Dam teacher on leave for Facebook photo

6 Feb

One of the 25 random things the Beaver Dam School District does not want to know about their teachers is what they look like pointing rifles.

Or at least that seems to be the idea behind the administrative leave given to Beaver Dam Middle School teacher who posted a Facebook profile picture of her holdling a rifle.

School safety is important, but so is the freedom of people (even teachers) to express themselves on their own time.

The context of the photo, which shows Ramsdale training the rifle toward the camera, involves the fact that her page is both personal and that she is a gun enthusiast. News reports haven’t detailed any other grounds for concern about the teacher’s behavior or any sinister intent.

“Absent any evidence that the teacher poses a threat, the district should not over-react to the sight of a gun in one of their employee’s hands,” said Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin today.

The ACLU took student off-campus expression to the Supreme Court in the narrowly decided Morse v. Frederick case (more famously known as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”). With student expression on trial, the court sided with arguments that if the content of the expression alluded to things that were against school rules, students can’t say it even if it is at a non-official or off-campus event.

This same logic seems to be applying to the teacher’s Facebook picture: while weapons aren’t allowed in school to protect students’ safety, where is the protection for teachers’ off-duty expression?

Are Tasers for fun or are the potentially lethal weapons?

5 Feb

That’s the question the ACLU of Wisconsin is asking the Chief of Police in Combined Locks, WI.

Police Chief Steve Wulgaert was shot with a Taser at a charity event on Tuesday to raise money for Special Olympics. After being shocked, the Chief said he felt like he was “kicked by a mule.” Creatively offering oneself up for a dunk tank or other mild forms of public embarrassment in the name of charity has a long history for public servants. But with deaths from police Tasering seemingly constant in the news (the most recent death was early this month in Stockton, CA), this is more haunting than funny.

“Tasers are not toys,” said Chris Ahmuty, ACLU of Wisconsin’s Executive Director. “They are potentially lethal, especially when used on the young, the elderly or people with medical conditions. And, as Chief Wulgaert’s experience confirms, they invariably cause excruciating pain. They should only be used as a last resort in controlling a suspect who poses a genuine threat to the safety of police officers or the public.”

The legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin has been tracking Taser deaths, complaints and rule-making (good and bad) for years.

“The Wisconsin Law Enforcement Standards Board recommends that Tasers be used only to overcome ‘active resistance or its threat,’” said Larry Dupuis, “and generally forbid their use against verbal aggression, people who are running away, children and older persons, or persons engaged in peaceful civil disobedience. Offering to be shot by a Taser as a fundraiser trivializes the extreme pain and risk of death associated with Tasers. This trivialization fosters the cavalier attitude of some law enforcement officers who have used Tasers against helpless suspects and children.”

And while a live demonstration of Tasers is common in police training (YouTube is full of Taser training and prank videos), even the Taser manufacturer’s warning states that “[a]ny student with concerns over present or past medical conditions should refrain from voluntary exposure.” While the painful experience of being shot with a Taser may impress upon police trainees the need to use the device sparingly, shooting someone for charity has no legitimate law-enforcement purpose.

For media inquiries about Taser use, contact: Larry Dupuis, Legal Director, (414) 272-4032, ext. 12.

Orders to close Guantanamo attacked: take action today!

4 Feb

We expected this to happen. President Obama’s bold first moves on Guantánamo Bay and military commissions have been met by brazen campaigns of misinformation from those who want to retain disastrous Bush administration policies.

Fox News is raising the specter of terrorists living in people’s “backyards.” Senators are saying that bringing detainees to the U.S. “will endanger American lives.” Rush Limbaugh is spreading the totally unsupported claim that 61 already-released detainees have “returned to the battlefield.” And, naysayers continue to make claims that our criminal justice system is incapable of prosecuting terrorism suspects.

They want to derail President Obama’s efforts to put an end to indefensible Bush administration practices and policies. That’s why we must get the truth out. How can you help?

Write a letter to the editor to get the facts out there and to make it clear that people all across America support President Obama’s actions to restore our nation’s commitment to justice and the rule of law.

We can’t let Gitmo apologists have the last word. By acting today, you can help counter their dangerous rhetoric.

President Obama’s executive orders were the crucial first steps. But, there is still much that needs to be done before the United States is once again a nation we can be proud of. Instead of backing down the way Rush Limbaugh and others are trying to force him to do, we need the President to follow through all the way.

That means insisting that Guantánamo Bay is shut down as soon as possible. It means making sure that the policies of the Obama administration do not allow for any form of indefinite detention. And, it means rejecting calls for a new system for prosecuting detainees. Our justice system and time-tested federal courts are fully capable of handling sensitive national security cases without compromising fundamental rights.

Help get the facts out there by writing a letter to the editor. Or, learn the facts and post on your favorite blogs or news sites.

Finally, America is headed in the right direction. We can’t afford to let irresponsible voices dominate the ongoing debate over Guantánamo Bay and detention issues.

Let’s make our voices heard until Guantánamo Bay is finally closed and every element of the Bush system of injustice is totally dismantled. Thanks for standing with us.

Anthony D. Romero
Executive Director

Updates on domestic spying and data mining, abortion service proposal at UW Health under attack

2 Feb

Domestic Spying
So it’s pretty official that the Bush administration spied on all of us with the willing help of telecommunications corporations. This whistleblower and former NSA analyst talks about how, under the auspices of keeping non-threatening people safe and separate from terrorists, journalists were spied on full-time. In the meantime, President Obama has nominated former law professor and noted Bush spying critic David Kris for the Assistant Attorney General position at the National Security Agency.

Wired says the data mining extended to other personal information including credit cards. Under the guise of protection, how are citizens guaranteed that these anti-terrorism dragnets aren’t leaving everyone exposed to hackers and identity thieves?

Reproductive Rights
Internationally, Obama overturned the global gag rule which would end the ban on international aid programs that go to family planning programs that include abortion in their education or service programs.

Women might not get such benefits in Wisconsin if anti-choice legislators and doctors get their way. Protests this weekend in front of local UW Health facilities brought a proposal to offer second trimester abortion services back into the headlines. UW Health is clear on its rules that abortion services would be paid for by insurance (or out of the pockets of service patients) and that doctors and nurses have the right to opt out if they hold their own personal objections. Ultimately it isn’t the right of anti-abortion doctors or legislators to decide for women who need an abortion which is only one of a spectrum of reproductive services that are vital to women’s equality, health care and self-determination.

Did you hear that nonprofit organizations are hoping to get some of the federal stimulus funds? It’s a good idea to put some fuel into organizations that build houses and help with disaster relief. The ACLU, however, never accepts government funding. Our only stimulus comes from the generous support of our donors and members. Don’t forget to renew your membership! Our members are the lifeblood of our organization and we thank all of our many supporters who are keeping Team ACLU going strong. Join today on the ACLU of Wisconsin website.