Friday, March 26, 2010

The Mississippi prom controversy is an ACLU case

It's great to live in a state like Massachusetts, which pioneered equal marriage rights, and where equality for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people is pretty much settled, at least in terms of the law.

But one reason that it's great to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU is that this organization works for equality across the country. The Mississippi prom controversy over the last couple of weeks is a perfect example.

This is an ACLU case. The ACLU stepped in to help Constance McMillen, the high school senior who simply wanted to bring her girlfriend to her school's prom.

In an amazingly heavy-handed response, her school decided to cancel the whole thing. This has made McMillen a celebrity, rallied more than 400,000 people to her cause on Facebook, and left people everywhere wondering what the big deal is.

This week, a federal judge declined to force the school to go ahead with the April 2 prom and allow McMillen to wear her tuxedo and bring her date, in part because an alternative prom has already been organized to take the place of the original. But he did rule that the Itawamba County School District violated her rights. A trial will take place at a later date.

There are also lots of other examples of ways in which the ACLU is at work for LGBT equality across the country:

This kind of work is why I joined the ACLU in 2003, a few years before actually coming to work here.

Of course, there's certainly still work to do in Massachusetts when it comes to LGBT issues. For instance, it's about time that we finally added gender identity to the state's nondiscrimination law.

But when it comes to other issues, it's not just a matter waiting for the rest of the country to catch up to states like Massachusetts on equal treatment for gay and lesbian people. Being a member of the ACLU supports work all across the country -- for LGBT equality, and across the full spectrum of civil rights and civil liberties.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Celebrating America's tradition of courageous students

Originally posted by Executive Director Carol Rose on the On Liberty blog.

Spring is in the air, the time of weddings, graduations and high school proms. Emotions run high as loved ones participate in annual rites of passage. This year, one prom -- the canceled prom of Constance McMillen at the Itawamba Agricultural High School in Mississippi -- marks yet another proud American tradition: the student profile in courage.

McMillan, age 18, wanted to attend the high school prom wearing a tuxedo and escorting a same-sex date. Mean-spirited school officials cancelled the prom rather than permit McMillan to attend with her date or while wearing her attire of choice. A federal Judge this week held that Constance' constitutional rights were violated and that her "expression and communication falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment." McMillen, who has been subject to hostility from classmates and community members, represents the best of American youth.

History is replete with examples of American students putting themselves on the line in defense of civil rights and equal justice, often in the face of popular prejudice.

Consider Shannon Faulkner, the first female cadet who entered the previously all-male bastion of the Citadel military academy. Although Faulkner subsequently resigned, citing emotional and psychological abuse and physical exhaustion, the Citadel now has more than 100 female cadets.

We all should know the name of Massachusetts resident Ellery Schempp who, as a high school student in 1963, objected to daily reading of Bible passages in school -- a challenge that Schempp took to the Supreme Court and won.

Another famous free speech hero was student Mary Beth Tinker, who was suspended along with her brother and their friend, for wearing black arm bands to school in protest of the Vietnam war. Their courage resulted in one of the U.S. Supreme Court's most important victories for student free speech in 1969. In Massachusetts, student speech rights were vindicated in 1996 when Jeffrey and Jonathan Pyle, students at South Hadley High School, successfully sued the local school committee, claiming the committee's dress code violated their state free expression rights.

More recently, Lindsay Earls, a 16-year-old junior at a Oklahoma high school, challenged a requirement that all students submit to drug tests in order to participate in extra-curricular activities. Earls, a member of the choir and academic quiz team, challenged the practice under the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches. Although the Supreme Court ultimately ruled 5-4 against Earls' challenge, her willingness to question unfair laws showed tremendous courage. Another recent example is that of 10-year-old Will Phillips, who last November took a stand by refusing to recite the pledge of allegiance to a country that discriminates.

By far, the most historically memorable instance of students showing bravery in the face of bigotry was the case of the "Little Rock Nine," the African-American students who in 1957 withstood threats of physical and verbal abuse in order to cross the color line and integrate public schools in Arkansas. Buoyed by the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, requiring integration of public schools, these nine students withstood months of abuse from fellow students and community members in order to do what was right for their country. Ultimately, it took the federal troops to force then-Arkansas Governor Orvel Faubus to back down and permit the students to enroll.

To be sure, attending a prom with the date of your choice may not compare to integrating public schools under armed escort. Nonetheless, let's all remind Constance that she is part of a long line of courageous American students who have helped our nation inch closer to realizing its noble aspiration of ensuring free speech and equal rights for all.

By the way, did you see that the Little Rock Nine were invited to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama?

That's a far better place to be in history than any prom.

A Golden Opportunity

Our Staff Attorney Laura Rotolo has a few words to share about an upcoming ACLU-sponsored event:

If you care about Boston kids’ rights to go to quality public schools, please come to this conference this weekend and get involved! This Saturday, we will be co-sponsoring the “Golden Opportunity Summit,” a day-long event where educators, advocates, elected leaders, community members, parents, leading thinkers and practitioners from Boston and across the nation will gather to explore issues related to student assignment and education reform in metropolitan Boston. We have been working with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights to put together this exciting event, which we hope will inform and support conversations around concern for education and equity. The conference is free to participants but space is limited. More information and RSVP

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Ray of Sunshine for Poor Women and Religious Liberty

The following was contributed by Carol Rose, and originally posted on's On Liberty blog.

If you are outraged at the ease with which Washington power-brokers of all political stripes are ready to sacrifice reproductive medical care for poor women in return for political gain, here’s a ray of sunshine from that critical third branch of government -- the U.S. courts.

A judge in Boston
ruled yesterday that taxpayers can challenge a government program that uses tax dollars to impose religious doctrine on victims of human trafficking. In a victory for religious liberty, the judge is permitting the case to proceed against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for selecting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to dole out government money under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Here’s the problem: government officials picked the Catholic Bishops group to administer the program even after they were told that the organization would impose Catholic religious restrictions on medical providers seeking funding to support medical services for victims of human trafficking. Each year, more than 14,000 people, mostly women, are trafficked into the United States, mainly for sexual exploitation. Amazingly, government officials permitted the Catholic Bishops to restrict the distribution of these public funds to medical service providers who promise not to supply victims of trafficking with emergency contraception, contraception services, abortion services, or even referrals.

To be sure, the Catholic Church and other religious denominations have played a historically significant role in promoting social justice and taking on the gritty work of poverty alleviation in this country. Indeed, consider the 59,000 Catholic nuns who recently marched for comprehensive health care reform.

Moreover, the Bishops have every right under the First Amendment to teach that the rhythm method and adoption are spiritually superior to contraception and abortion. With their own funds, they also can refuse to provide services that violate their religious beliefs. That’s their religious right.

But if the Bishops want to get in the business of administering government programs with taxpayer money, a different set of rules apply. They don’t get to use tax dollars to run programs that deny medical advice or services to people based on their religious creed. That’s

The underlying facts of this case are particularly outrageous since the people being denied medical care are victims of human trafficking. It seems the Bishops would deny needed services to the poorest of the poor, often women and children who have been victimized by the human slave trade and, too often, are victims of rape and sexual abuse, HIV, and other sexually transmitted diseases.

When Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, it did not impose limits on health care services to be provided to these needy people. Yet, the Department of Health and Human Services has been misusing the funds by allowing certain religious doctrines to be imposed on providers. And that’s just plain wrong.

If the Catholic Bishops want to get into the business of doling out tax dollars, they have to play by the same rules as other government service providers -- and keep their religion out of it.

Learn more about this case from our news release at

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sexting – and who decides what it means to be a girl in 2010 America?

ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose posted the following on her new blog, On Liberty.

Sexting -- the latest twist on technology-meets-teenagers – often involves kids sharing revealing pictures of themselves or others by cell phone or online posting. Such youthful idiocy, while concerning itself, is even more dangerous because it subjects teens to criminal penalties for child pornography and a potential lifetime listing on a sex offender registry.

In Massachusetts, cases of sexting have hit the wires in Belmont, Newton, Falmouth, Billerica, and undoubtedly is coming to your town soon enough. But the law hasn’t caught up with the technology. Instead, prosecutors are armed only with the blunt hammer of child pornography statutes, under which sharing such photos constitutes a felony crime and a sexual offense.

Given that nearly 20 percent of teenagers are reported to have sent or posted nude or seminude photos of themselves online or via phone, parents are understandably concerned that their teens may be victimized when revealing photographs passed around.

But parents should be equally concerned that the current law gives local prosecutors tremendous power to lock up their kids -- both the victims and perpetrators -- and to tag them as sex offenders for life.

One of the creepiest examples of prosecutorial abuse of power around sexting involved a Pennsylvania district attorney, George Skumanick, Jr., who threatened to bring criminal charges against two girls age 12 who were photographed wearing bras by a friend on her digital camera and a third girl photographed as she came out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her upper body, but her breasts exposed. Neither of the pictures showed sexual activity or genitalia. Nonetheless, when school officials learned that the photos were circulating on several students’ cell phones, Skumanick threatened to prosecute the girls in the picture – but not the boys who shared the photos – unless the girls agreed to a “re-education” program that Skumanick himself designed, with topics such as “what it means to be a girl in today’s society.”

If they refused, Skumanick threatened to charge the girls with felony child pornography, a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison. Fortunately, the girls’ parents contacted the American Civil Liberties Union to defend the rights of their daughters, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals last week upheld the rights of the girls and their families.

Amazingly, the attorney who argued the case for the prosecution explained that they decided to prosecute the girls in the photos but not the boys who were circulating the pictures because “high school boys did as high school boys will do, and traded the photos among themselves." Skumanick himself has been quoted saying that he has the authority to prosecute a girl for being photographed in a bikini on a beach if the photo is “provocative.”

Are these the kind of people we want deciding “what it means to be a girl in today’s society”?

Kids should be taught that sending or posting compromising photographs of themselves is dangerous and can have terrible consequences for their future. But that’s a lesson that should be taught by parents and teachers – not by the heavy-hand of criminal prosecution.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dep’t of Corrections doesn’t like the sun

On a particularly sunny day in Boston, we spent the morning in court where the Massachusetts Department of Corrections argued to a panel of judges that documents about how the maximum security prison is run should never see the light of day. We were in the state Court of Appeals, as part of an ongoing lawsuit that we are bringing on behalf of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services – the organization charged by the state to advocate on behalf of prisoners.

This case stems from DOC’s decision to re-arrange its prisons, housing all maximum-security prisoners in the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. In November 2008, as DOC rolled out their new plan, MCLS began receiving calls and letters about increased violence. Apparently, in order to make room for the increase in population, DOC had converted small single cells into doubles by adding a second bed above the first one. The situation soon turned violent. Prisoners were fighting with each other and DOC was using teams of guards to force prisoners into doubled cells. Even the guards’ union weighed in against the move because it put guards at risk.

As our cooperating attorney, Scott Lewis of Anderson & Krieger, explained today in court, MCLS raised the prisoners’ concerns to DOC and its response was that they had a scientific, research-based method of deciding how to pair cellmates, but they could not let MCLS see most of it. In essence, DOC said “trust us, but we can’t show you how we’re doing this.”

We filed suit because we believe that MCLS, as advocates for prisoners, as well as the public at large, have a right to know how our government runs prisons. A lower court judge ruled in our favor last May, finding that the documents we were requesting were public and should be released. DOC appealed and to this day refuses to release most of the documents showing how they are carrying out the double-bunking.

The running of prisons is one of the most secretive businesses our government engages in. But just because they can shut the prison doors doesn’t mean they get to work in complete secrecy.

It’s important for the public to know whether DOC is doing everything it can to ensure that the prisons are safe. Our public records laws were written with just that purpose in mind. As Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

We will continue to fight this case because we believe not just that human beings have rights even when they are in prison, but because we also believe in an open and transparent government that is accountable to the people.

Contributed by ACLU of Massachusetts Staff Attorney Laura Rotolo

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Do you really know your Facebook friends and Twitter followers?

Thanks to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), we now know what many people concerned about e-privacy have long suspected: federal agents and local law enforcement are using social networking to spy on and gather evidence about citizens, sometimes employing fake identities in the process.

After initially refusing to release documents pertaining to the FOIA request, the Justice Department made public a number of internal federal agency documents in response to a lawsuit filed by EFF. Among the documents was one showing that “U.S. agents are logging on surreptitiously to exchange messages with suspects, identify a target's friends or relatives and browse private information such as postings, personal photographs and video clips” (Richard Lardner, “Feds Using Fake Online Profiles to Spy on Suspects,” 3/16/10, AP).

The document, a presentation called “Obtaining and Using Evidence from Social Networking Sites: Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn and More,” is a product of the Computer Crime & Intellectual Property Section of the Department of Justice.

The presentation teaches that “evidence from social-networking sites can: reveal personal communications; establish motives and personal relationships; provide location information; prove and disprove alibis; establish crime or criminal enterprise,” and provide evidence of the “instrumentalities or fruits of crime.” It is possible that by “fruits of crime,” the DOJ is referring to pictures, status updates or other communications involving expensive items, large amounts of cash, guns or drugs, etc.

Chillingly, the document discusses the “legal and practical issues” of going “undercover on Facebook, MySpace, etc.” The authors write that going undercover on these sites can be useful for agents who want to “communicate with suspects/targets; gain access to non-public information,” and perhaps most alarming, “map social relationships/networks.”

Facebook users take note: the document counsels that Facebook is “often cooperative with emergency requests,” suggesting that the company does not require law enforcement to present court ordered warrants before disclosing information like private messages. This is confirmed by their privacy policy, which leaves open the possibility of disclosing information without a subpoena. Alternatively, according to the presentation MySpace “requires a search warrant for private messages/bulletins less than 181 days old...[and] considers friend lists to be stored content,” presumably also subject to disclosure only with a warrant.

Twitter appears to be the most responsible and protective of its users’ information. The DOJ document evinces that Twitter only retains the last login Internet Protocol number (used to discern the physical location of a user), “will not preserve data without legal process,” and has a “stated policy of producing data only in response to legal process.”

The “Obtaining and Using Evidence from Social Networking Sites” presentation indicates that Facebook may willingly give up information about you to the police and federal agents without any proof of criminal involvement, while Twitter and MySpace evidently have policies on the books requiring law enforcement to get warrants before they will turn over your private information.

For more information about law enforcement and social networking, visit the EFF’s FOIA: Social Network Monitoring website.

Also see this AP story to learn about a case in which the government used social networking to find and apprehend a suspect...all the way from Mexico.

Click here to read Facebook’s privacy policy. In the “How We Share Information” section, you’ll find the following:

"To respond to legal requests and prevent harm. We may disclose information pursuant to subpoenas, court orders, or other requests (including criminal and civil matters) if we have a good faith belief that the response is required by law. This may include respecting requests from jurisdictions outside of the United States where we have a good faith belief that the response is required by law under the local laws in that jurisdiction, apply to users from that jurisdiction, and are consistent with generally accepted international standards. We may also share information when we have a good faith belief it is necessary to prevent fraud or other illegal activity, to prevent imminent bodily harm, or to protect ourselves and you from people violating our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. This may include sharing information with other companies, lawyers, courts or other government entities."

Contributed by Kade Crockford, of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Are there cops in your book group?

Law enforcement spying on protected First Amendment activity is well documented throughout the second half of the twentieth century in the United States. The problem peaked during the 1960s and 70s when the secret FBI program COINTELPRO was in full swing, spying on and interfering with the activities of groups ranging from the Black Panthers to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Public outcry over improper domestic intelligence activities and emerging evidence of CIA overseas assassination programs encouraged the federal government to take important steps towards oversight of intelligence in the 1970s. Chief among them was the creation of the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, known as the Church Committee. The Church Committee published fourteen reports detailing abuses of power in intelligence agencies, including a damning summary of COINTELPRO activities. The Committee also issued recommendations to the Congress and President, some of which were accepted and became law.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, much of what we learned as a nation in the 1960s and 70s about surveillance and spying was quickly forgotten or outright rejected. In its place we collectively accepted a newfound deference to executive authority and law enforcement secrecy. Many of the Church Committee’s accomplishments, including - notoriously - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, were weakened or ignored.

Over the past three years, the ACLU of Massachusetts has been submitting public records requests to Massachusetts and federal agencies seeking information about the activities of the Commonwealth Fusion Center, a secretive law enforcement intelligence sharing facility. We are proud to announce that many of these documents are now available online. As information comes in, and as we upload the documents for public viewing, we will highlight here those documents that give us pause.

The Commonwealth Fusion Center’s Standard Operating Procedure, “Guidelines for Investigations Involving First Amendment Activity,” is one such document. Download the PDF and scroll down to page four, where you’ll find some chilling words about “Undercover and Confidential Informant Operations.” Among other disturbing policies, you’ll see that undercover officers are permitted to “attend meetings where legal counsel is discussing or preparing legal strategy for pending or anticipated litigation,” if it is not “reasonably possible” to avoid such meetings, or if not attending would “expos[e] one’s cover or compromis[e] the investigation”. That language is dangerously ambiguous and allows for potential breaches of lawyer-client confidentiality.

The ACLU will continue asking questions of the CFC as part of our “Sunlight on Surveillance” campaign. We wonder: why do the CFC guidelines allow for this kind of undercover operation? Why do the State Police need undercover agents in the first place? Whose meetings have undercover officers been attending? Has undercover surveillance of First Amendment protected activity saved lives, or is it simply another abuse of power by law enforcement?

Take a look at the document so that you understand the rules governing undercover police investigation into First Amendment activity, and share the link on Facebook and Twitter.

Contributed by Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts

Monday, March 15, 2010

Canceling the Prom

Have you been following the case of Constance McMillen, a young lesbian who wanted to take a female date to her high school prom? The HRC has, as has the ACLU – we’ve taken on her case. Unfortunately, it seems that the high school in question - Itawamba Agricultural High School, in Mississippi, is going to call off the prom entirely, just to keep this young woman from bringing her date and wearing a tuxedo.

From an HRC blog post:

“A high school in Mississippi has decided that they will cancel the prom entirely rather than allow a same-sex couple to attend. This isn’t an unusual occurrence, unfortunately – particularly in the south we have seen schools try to limit the visibility and participation of queer students. Most of the times the schools realize (read: are told to do the right thing) their error and make amends. Just last year the same situation arose at a high school in neighboring Alabama, when Cynthia Stewart wanted to bring her female date to the prom at Tharptown High. The ACLU again got involved, sent a demand letter and the school district reversed their earlier decision.”

Cancelling the prom feels like retaliation – something that McMillan stated explicitly in the Clarion-Ledger:

“the message they are sending is that if they have to let gay people go to prom that they are not going to have one," she said. "A bunch of kids at school are really going to hate me for this, so in a way it's really retaliation."

The ACLU position is that this is a clear, grievous violation of Miller’s constitutional rights – and this is discrimination of the ugliest sort. No one should be forced into the closet – and the school had no right to try to bar her from a social event just because she is gay. That this sort of thing still happens in 2010 is a sad reminder of just how far we still have to go in terms of LGBT rights in America.

Make no mistake – we will fight until the day that this case – and every other story about institutional discrimination – is nothing but a quaint, ugly memory.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Search and Seizure Victory

We’re proud to announce a victory today! The ACLU of Massachusetts, acting as Amicus, was instrumental in protecting the basic rights of a resident of a homeless shelter.

From our press release:

“Residents of homeless shelters must be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures under a ruling issued today by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, in which the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a friend of the court brief. The case, Commonwealth v. Porter P., affirms that constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures apply to residents of homeless shelters, just as they do to renters or students in dormitories.”

The case in question involved a minor who was living with his mother at a shelter. Police – who had no warrant – searched the room without consent.

From John Reinstein, our Legal Director here at the ACLU of Massachusetts:

"Although transitional, the Court concluded that the room at the shelter was the family's home and therefore entitled to the full protection of the state constitution. And, while recognizing that the shelter manager retained the right to enter the room to inspect the premises, she could not consent to a police search. That, the Court found, could only be done with a warrant.”

Today’s win is something to be proud of, as it sounds a definitive message about equality loud and clear: People who live in shelters are just as deserving of their constitutional rights as anyone else.

Click here to see the full legal decision.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Civil Liberties at the Oscars

It’s perfectly fitting, on this International Women’s Day, to note that a woman made major history last night. During the 82nd annual Academy Awards, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman in the history of the ceremony to win the “Best Director” award - and the “Best Picture” Oscar, for The Hurt Locker.

The honor – and the weight of the moment - was almost palpable. Bigelow repeatedly stated that it was “the moment of a lifetime”, before sounding a note of appreciation for those who serve overseas. From Bigelow’s turn at the podium:I'd just like to dedicate this to the women and men in the military who risk their lives on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world. And may they come home safe. Thank you.”

Other women took their moment in the limelight to make serious pleas for equality. During her acceptance speech for winning “Best Actress in a Leading Role” Sandra Bullock notedthere's no race, no religion, no class system, no color, nothing, no sexual orientation that makes us better than anyone else. We are all deserving of love.”

Mo’Nique, who was awarded “Best Actress in a Supporting Role”, tipped her hat to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actress to be honored with an Academy Award (of any kind).

She saidFirst, I would like to thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics. I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to. Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey because you touched it, the whole world saw it. Ricky Anderson, our attorney of Anderson & Smith, thank you for your hard work. My entire BET family, my Precious family, thank you so much.

In fact, it was reminiscent of last year’s ceremony, when screenwriter Dustin Lance Black sounded a clear, positive message for LGBT youth – and for the future of LGBT rights - when he gave his acceptance speech for penning Milk.

From his speech:most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he’d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours. Thank you, thank you, and thank you God for giving us Harvey Milk”

It’s always heartening to see celebrities promoting equality through their work. Civil liberties are truly alive in film – thanks to the artists who make their messages heard, loud and clear.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Rule of Law – Left Behind

After celebrating some very good LGBT rights news earlier in the week (marriage licenses became available to DC couples on March 3rd), we’re now facing some potentially dire news on the criminal justice and rule of law front.

A recent Washington Post article points out that the Obama administration may soon be going back on its historic (and right-minded!) decision to try the 9/11 plotters in a federal court.

From the article:

President Obama's advisers are nearing a recommendation that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, be prosecuted in a military tribunal, administration officials said, a step that would reverse Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s plan to try him in civilian court in New York City.

If Obama accepts the likely recommendation of his advisers, the White House may be able to secure from Congress the funding and legal authority it needs to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and replace it with a facility within the United States. The administration has failed to meet a self-imposed one-year deadline to close Guantanamo.”

While we strongly advocate for the closing of Guantanamo – we do not think that this is the way to do it. We applauded the administration for committing more strongly to the rule of law when it was announced that some detainees would be tried in civilian courts – and we strongly urge the president not to go back on this decision-making.

The national ACLU also has a few strong words on the subject.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Civic engagement, access and free speech: blogging the MIT symposium.

Last evening, I had the opportunity to attend a symposium at MIT about broadband access and civic engagement. We’re pretty interested in the implications of broadband access for free speech – and always proponents of civic engagement (it’s your right to participate in our government, after all!), so it’s safe to say that we generally perk up when there’s a chance to talk about it all.

The folks at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Engagement put together a fantastic program – first up was keynote speaker Eugene Huang of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan (which is a proposal for increasing broadband access for all Americans), specifically, he is the Director of Government Performance and Civic Engagement for the National Broadband Plan. That’s a lot of proper nouns and acronyms, so let me break it down – basically, Eugene was in charge of the team that figured out the best ways to get citizens engaged in the democratic process, using the internet.

He explained the genesis of the project – Congress tasked the FCC to develop the broadband plan as part of the recovery act. The general idea being that the use of broadband communication tools (the use of the internet and things like social media tools) is how we do much of our communicating about government and about our world here in the 21st century – and we need to engage all of our people.

He made the following points during the course of his speech:

- The use of social media (think blogs, facebook, twitter, podcasts) and crowdsourcing was very important to the strategy. These tools are – and will continue to be – very important in fostering civic engagement.

- Civic engagement is the lifeblood of our democracy.

- Broadband can strengthen the reach and influence of mediated and unmediated information.

- It can enable citizens to engage in the democracy to make our democracy more participatory and more representative.

- Transparent, open government is a goal. He proposed free access to public documents, court documents and the like. Public meetings (like town hall meetings) should be streamed online, with closed captioned for accessibility, so more people can be a part of the process.

- The use of public media is important to a democracy – journalism is important! We need accurate information and good reporting. We must transition from 20th century broadcast based communication to a 21st century broadband-based model. We also need to update copyright rules.

- The government should use social media not as add-on’s but as core to the mission. The CDC is a great example of a government organization that has taken social media tools and used them to inform the public. They used social media (including podcasts and internet video) to inform public of H1NI.

- We need to use broadband to strengthen the democratic process – voter registration challenges could be mitigated w. modernization. Some states allow voters to register online.

- Broadband has potential to transform civic engagement, but we need to all embrace it!

It was a fantastic talk – and certainly inspired me to take a look at the FCC’s materials on the subject, which you can find here.

Stay tuned for more impressions – including thoughts on the panel discussions.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Today! Civic Engagement, ACLU Style

We've very excited to be attending this event at MIT this afternoon - titled "The Future of Civic Engagement in a Broadband-Enabled World", we're looking forward to a lively discussion
on just how we can make the ACLU of Massachusetts a more vibrant, lively community for all of our members.

As you may have noticed, we've begun to take social media very seriously, with an increased focus on our blog,
our podcast, and our Twitter and Facebook communities. We're big believers in the power of these tools to reach out
and keep our members more engaged with our work - and best informed on how they can take action on civil liberties

We'll be blogging and tweeting about the event soon. Stay tuned!