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Victory! Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights finds state is violating civil rights rules

4 Sep

If federal transportation money is spent on expanding highways while dollars for inner-city public transportation are slashed, how can transit-dependent people – who are much more likely to be people of color – get to their jobs? What impact does expanding highways to the suburbs have on a highly segregated city?

These are the kinds of questions groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation, the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin and the Midwest Environmental Advocates asked the Wisconsin Department of Transportation back in April of 2011. We raised these questions in the name of racial and environmental justice because we knew the state was headed in the wrong direction on transportation priorities. And we learned a big part of the reason these issues weren’t being dealt with fairly was that WisDOT had simply not followed federal rules that require it to have a plan to implement civil rights requirements – and to update that plan every year. Instead, we learned in 2011 that WisDOT hadn’t had a Title VI plan since 2004 – and officials at the Federal Highway Administration office in Madison knew it and let them disregard the rules.

That’s simply the wrong thing to do. When states use hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars, they have to make sure that the benefits of those funds are shared fairly. And it isn’t fair to add to urban sprawl and ignore public transit – especially when the state knows that communities of color depend on transit much more than other groups. It means making sure the state follows Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and ensuring that transportation programs do not effectively discriminate against people of color. In the highly segregated City of Milwaukee, expanding suburban highways while cutting public transit will keep transit-dependent people from jobs, medical care, affordable housing and other needs.

Last month, after a yearlong review, the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights in Washington DC agreed with us: they found that the state was “deficient” for not complying with the civil rights rules.  Civil rights officials gave the state 90 days to improve. We’ll be keeping an eye on them as well.

And our other work for racial and environmental justice in southeastern Wisconsin isn’t over: earlier this month we filed a lawsuit in federal court over a highway expansion plan to rebuild and widen the Zoo Interchange, a plan that completely ignored the transit needs of urban communities.

Transit advocates believe that we must have a more balanced plan. When it comes to our tax dollars, fairness means that the most disfranchised in Wisconsin aren’t denied investment in their transportation options.

The story was featured in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin Public Radio statewide headlines today, as well as a wire story in Sheboygan, Wausau and Pierce County. It also got a mention in the Political Environment blog. Attorney Karyn Rotker was also interviewed on 1290 AM WMCS on Tuesday.

Southeastern Wisconsin Demands Equity in Transit – Civil Rights and Environmental Justice Implications of SEWRPC

18 Jul

This week, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation took another step in speaking up for people who use public transit. In southeastern Wisconsin, plans for spending your tax dollars are being made in a way that are discriminatory and contribute harm to our environment. Here’s how our comments to a regional planning organization impact the civil rights of people who live in Milwaukee.

Here is the update from ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation’s Karyn Rotker. Ms. Rotker is the foundation’s Race, Poverty and Civil Liberties Attorney: 

Background on transportation decision-makers in government:

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) are agencies created by government to address regional planning. And the big reason they’re important – especially in a segregated region like southeastern Wisconsin – is that they have a lot of say over what happens with federal transportation dollars. The MPO for the seven counties in and around Milwaukee is the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC).

Because we know that persons of color and persons with disabilities in southeastern Wisconsin are much more likely to depend on public transit – for work, school, medical care, and more – and because Wisconsin is spending billions of dollars to beef up highways while public transit is in crisis, we’re telling the federal government that it needs to make our planners put more focus on transit and less on adding highway capacity – which just leads to more segregated sprawl.  These maps, prepared by SEWRPC itself, show just how isolated persons of color and persons with disabilities are.

The role of the federal government:

Every four years, the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) have to certify that MPOs are following federal laws, including civil rights and environmental justice standards. Because we don’t think these concerns have been taken seriously in the past, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation and our civil rights and environmental justice allies put together some comments that go into the background of segregation in this region along with a lot of suggestions on what needs to improve. To download our most recent comments, click on the document link at the bottom of the page.

What SEWRPC needs to change to ensure nondiscriminatory transit options:

The comments are available on the web, but some of our main points are that our regional planners need to make sure that:

• They use more federal “highway” funds to expand transit: federal rules on spending allow for the option to use funds for highway OR transit projects. SEWRPC should use flex funds to expand transit options to meet environmental justice needs in Southeastern Wisconsin.

Priorities should emphasize civil rights and environmental justice: a transportation improvement plan should look at how decisions impact minority neighborhoods and urban workers’ ability to access their jobs from affordable housing. SEWRPC doesn’t.

• Urban residents needs fair representation on the commission: The way SEWRPC is structured now, Ozaukee County – which has less than 10% of the number of residents as Milwaukee County – gets the same number of votes as Milwaukee. The city of Milwaukee, where the majority of the whole region’s population of color and a disproportionate number of persons with disabilities live, gets no vote at all. For SEWRPC to fairly represent the region, the makeup of the commission should reflect populations proportionately. 

We hope that this time the federal government takes those concerns seriously. If you want to join us in speaking up for fair transit, contact me at the ACLU of Wisconsin,

Recertification Review Comments July 16, 2012-2

Selling your DVDs and CDs in Madison? Police Want Your Photo and to Know What You’ve Been Watching

16 Sep

The Madison city council’s Public Safety Review Committee met on Wednesday to consider a change to the law governing the licenses of secondhand dealers. The ordinance change would create an electronic reporting system where secondhand dealers, such as used bookstores or pawn shops, would report daily to police what was sold and would include a digital picture of the person who brought in the items. The list includes things like jewelry and electronics but it also includes recorded materials such as CDs, DVDs and audiobooks.

Whenever a change to this law comes up, the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Madison Area Office pays attention. In 2007, a campus-area alder suggested that used book dealers report their book buy-backs to police after a rash of textbook thefts. Bookstores objected saying that the reporting would be burdensome and costly. Police said they needed more tools to fight crime. The idea of electronic reporting came back in 2009 when Madison police held a listening session with stakeholders and explained the need for modernization but also heard concerns about data security, cost and customer privacy.

This proposal is an example of how whenever the government has access to a list of what we read or what we watch or the websites we visit, the ACLU must respond. Remember how librarians fought back when the Patriot Act would have required them to offer our library records for inspection? They protected our right to read because it was a core privacy issue. Our choice to posses any expressive material, be it a book or a CD or a film on DVD, is something we may choose to keep private. Especially if that material is controversial.

Government inspection of lists of such materials, even after they have been sold to a secondhand dealer, can create a profile of an individual’s personal selection or possession of intellectual or entertainment choices. We have a First Amendment protected tradition in this country to allow people to pursue and exchange information anonymously, even if that information is controversial. The only exception to this is in the realm of child pornography, although in the surveillance culture of post-9/11 America, the government now labels some information sharing as suspicious activity. The infrastructure for intelligence gathering has grown exponentially in the past ten years and our government literally has more data than it knows what to do with despite the estimated 2,000 private companies it has hired to data mine all of the cell phone records, suspicious activity reports and other bits of surveillance it has gathered from innocent people in the homeland. Our government does not need another database to spy on our personal choices.

Also whenever the government imposes on the First Amendment or the privacy rights of individuals, it has the responsibility to prove a compelling justification for that imposition. Police say theft, particularly related to drug use, justifies the need for this database. But requiring secondhand dealers to maintain electronic records and digital photographs of media sales specific to sellers and turn those records over to police daily treats all customers as potential criminals without suspicion that any particular person has stolen the CDs, DVDs, audiobooks or other media. The best way to balance fighting crime and protecting privacy is through individualized investigations by police who obtain warrants to search dealers’ own records. Database hacking or fishing expeditions or through electronic lists of who sold what would become easier and no less unacceptable under this proposed ordinance change.

Madison residents should ask their Common Council Alder to support an amendment that exempts “audio tapes, compact discs, laser discs, records, videotapes, digital video discs, portable media players or other similar audio or audio-visual recording devices,” “computer games” and digital pictures of customers who sell them from the daily electronic reporting to local police. Such an amendment would allow secondhand dealers and the city to comply with state law without compromising innocent people’s rights to privacy and freedom to exchange expressive materials.

Read the proposed ordinance online.

Madison residents can find their city council representative’s contact information on the city’s website.

While thinking about controversial materials, remember that September 24 through October 1 is Banned Books Week. We take one week out of the year to acknowledge how the work to defend our right to privacy and our right to read happens 365 days a year. Join us in Madison for a Banned Books Week kick off happy hour at Mickey’s on Friday, September 23 from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. We will co-host a reading of banned books at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee on Wednesday, September 28 with a reception starting at 6:30 p.m. Both events are free, but donations are welcome.

ACLU of WI Files Complaint Over Shorewood Hills Planning and Housing Decisions

12 Aug

Whenever there are concerns about building affordable housing, our ears prick up mostly because of fights like what happened in South Milwaukee with the Lake Point Apartments.

We’ve been observing the housing issue around Shorewood Hills and the proposal to replace the nearly vacant Pyare Square building. Some residents of the affluent village near Lake Mendota and the University of Wisconsin Madison campus complained about a proposed apartment complex that would house limited-income families. Finally the whole project was scrapped ostensibly due to the height of the building design. However a new apartment complex proposal has recently been suggested by the Stone House Development company under the same affordable housing financing program with fewer neighborhood objections. But questions remain about the fairness of the planning process in the village.

Today, on behalf of a Shorewood Hills resident named Bill Thomas, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation requested a federal investigation of the Village’s rejection of accepting affordable family housing developments. In the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, Mr. Thomas objects to the discriminatory effect of the Village’s February 2010 rejection of affordable housing.

Mr. Thomas is a longtime resident of Shorewood Hills, a former member of its Plan Commission, and an outspoken advocate for housing diversity in the Village. He as long objected to Shorewood Hills’ de facto policy of excluding affordable housing – and the people who qualify for it, who are disproportionately persons of color – from the community.

“A developer wanted to build affordable housing in a perfect spot in Shorewood Hills,” noted Mr. Thomas. “He wanted to tear down Pyare Square – an obsolete, almost vacant office building, for which no one could think of a viable non-residential use, and replace it with affordable apartments and some green space. That proposal gave our Village a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break with the deplorable exclusionary policies of its past, and to comply with Wisconsin’s Smart Growth mandates to ‘meet the housing needs of persons of all income levels,’ and ‘promote the availability of land for the development and redevelopment low-income and moderate income housing’ without any serious strain or pain. Although the Plan Commission had recommended the needed rezoning, the Board of Trustees denied it.”

Mr. Thomas’ attorney, the ACLU’s Karyn Rotker, noted that the Fair Housing Act prohibits actions that have a discriminatory effect, as well as intentionally discriminatory behavior.

“Refusing to allow a developer to build housing that persons of color are proportionally more likely to need and use, especially in a less-diverse community like Shorewood Hills, can be unlawful,” said Rotker. “That’s especially true when the rejection of such housing is accompanied by the kinds of sudden changes in rules and priorities, and the negative statements about people who live in affordable housing, that occurred here.”

“I fear that the Board of Trustees of Shorewood Hills, as a body, does not feel morally or legally obligated to even allow, much less encourage, affordable housing in the Village,” said Thomas. “Unless it is persuaded otherwise, it will exercise the discretion it has reserved for itself to keep affordable housing out of Shorewood Hills indefinitely. I am hopeful that the Department of Housing and Urban Development will succeed in persuading it otherwise,” Mr. Thomas added.

The complaint got some media attention in the Wisconsin State Journal.

Issue ad regs postponed, drug sniffing dogs in parks, homeless banned and more

5 Sep

Free Speech
Free speech gets muddled in between the lines of rule-making of the GAB at their recent meeting. While the board didn’t take a formal vote at their last meeting (mainly because it is still up in the air whether or not they have the actual authority to regulate issue ads), they will be working on drafting a rule concerning ads and revisit the topic at their October meeting. This subject goes to the heart of free speech, the ability of all organizations to communicate with the public about the issues they care about, and how to make campaign finance and influencing voters fair.

Privacy Rights
Here’s an article about recent sweeps of public parks by police with drug sniffing dogs. The cops made some small busts of drug users, but the article is a rare example of newspapers detailing the boundaries of people’s rights. It also shows how 1.) police lie, and 2.) open air is searchable. For more on how everyone can interact with police while asserting their rights to privacy, to remain silent and to not consent to searches, visit this Know Your Rights page on the ACLU website.

Rights of the Poor
A recent article points out that the Brittingham Park plan to get rid of disorderly loiterers is working. But the article doesn’t ask anyone where the homeless people went or if they experienced an increase of police harassment or discrimination.

Reproductive Rights
Zweifel writes a solid column about the religious right’s support for Republican V.P. nominee Sarah Palin’s daughter. The spin from Palin’s supporters articulates how Palin’s family is human, subject to mistakes and should have their private decisions kept to themselves. Zweifel notes that this perspective comes from religious right figureheads who have been telling the rest of us how to raise our children and teach them (or not teach them at all, in the case of abstinence-only education mandates) about sex. For more on how <a href="”>the ACLU is challenging abstinence only education, visit our reproductive freedom webpage.

Student Rights
Dane County schools update their rules to bring clarity and more modern definitions to their policies. New regs on cell phones are an improvement that recognizes the ubiquity of this personal communications technology. However, it’s as important as ever for students and parents to read their school rules in the student handbook to understand their rights and the boundaries of what is allowed. Read on to get the scoop on how students can get kicked out of school for something that even looks like a gun and a student ID experiment at Verona that would require students to have IDs visible on lanyards at all times.

Check out this upcoming event which features an excellent speaker who is a former board member of the ACLU of North Carolina affiliate and frequent speaker at ACLU national conferences:

Community lecture: “Civil Liberties and the War on Terror – Past, Present, and Future” with Erwin Chermerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, UC-Irvine School of Law
When: Friday, September 19, 12:10 p.m.
Where: UW Memorial Union Play Circle Theater
The UW Law School Office of the Dean and the Institute for Legal Studies fall 2008 workshop series will focus on “Ideas and Innovations in Legal Scholarship.” Hosted by Kathryn Hendley, Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development, this series features current topics shared by legal scholars in our community and from across the country. Professor Howard Erlanger will provide the welcome for Chermerinsky who will doubtlessly give an in-depth, yet accessible talk on the history of threats to civil liberties in times of war and threats to national security. Worth checking out!