Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Equality is nothing to fear

Originally posted by Carol Rose at the On Liberty Blog

Everybody knows that fear is the great motivator. Ask any advertising professional, political campaign manager, or the folks who deliver the nightly mayhem report on your local news stations. No doubt about it: fear sells and boosts ratings.

So I should not have been surprised when gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker resorted toscare-mongering tactics to campaign against a bill that would ensure equal protection under the law for people who are transgender.

The bill would add Massachusetts to 13 other states that already protect the rights of transgender people by including gender identity and expression in the state's non-discrimination statutes. Recent polls show that 76 percent of Massachusetts voters support this legislation as a matter of basic fairness. Most people believe that transgender people deserve to live without fear of violence or discrimination.

Apparently, Baker doesn't agree. Dubbing the civil rights legislation the "bathroom bill," Baker vowed to veto the bill if he is elected -- as did State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who is running for governor as an independent.

In contrast, Governor Deval Patrick said, "I feel very strongly that discrimination should not appear in our Constitution or in our laws."

Calling this civil rights bill a bathroom bill is blatant fear-mongering. Personally, I don't spend time checking out other people's private parts in public restrooms. I don't think it's any of my business. Then again, I have a hard time figuring out how it is Charlie Baker or Tim Cahill's business, either.

The scary bathroom trick is the same one that was used in the 1930s to warn against "
Bolsheviks breeding in your washroom." Opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment trotted out the old saw again in 1970s, warning that equal rights would lead to men and women sharing public bathrooms.

Well, 34 years after passage of the state ERA, I'm not aware of any women trying to beat down the door to public men's rest room (no thanks, gents'; we'd rather wait in long lines for the women's rest room). It's silly to suggest that ensuring equal rights will mean that sex-segregated facilities will be used any differently than they are now.

But we all know that this public debate isn't about bathrooms. It's about ensuring equal protection under the law for everybody: a fundamental principle of American democracy.

It also is about the use of fear in politics.

So, let's talk about transgender equal rights and fear.

Maybe you or someone you know is afraid of people who may have been born with indeterminate sex characteristics or who otherwise feel as if they were born in the wrong body. It's a medical condition that actually is more common than you think. In fact, one estimate is that one out of every 100 people is transgender.

Maybe you think that it is weird or scary. Well, imagine how people who are born the wrong gender feel -- and how scary it must be for them!

And if you are too afraid to walk in their shoes, then at least try to imagine how their families might feel. Imagine if medical doctors told you that your baby had been born with unclear genitalia and you had to decide whether to raise your child as a boy or a girl? Pretty scary, right? Now imagine that you guessed wrong. Should your child somehow be treated as a second class citizen as a result?

I hope you answered no.

Listen to the words of Ken and Marcia Garber, of Quincy, whose 20 year old son died after years of harassment based on his gender identity. Ken, a square-jawed fire fighter with a grey crew-cut, spoke at the State House today about how hard it was for their son to live as a second class citizen.

“When you discriminate against transgender people, you discriminate against everybody who loves them,” said Ken.

Another parent, Marion Freedman-Gurspan, said “In my wildest dreams, I never thought that I’d have to stand here and beg for basic civil rights protections for my child. I thought that went out in 1964!”

Another father, David Hardy, spoke about his concern for the safety of his three kids: the one who is on duty in Kabul, the one who is a rock-climber, and the one who is transgender. “We really worry about him,” said Hardy.

Ultimately, what you or I think about transgender people is irrelevant. What matters is that all people should be afforded equal protection under the law. A personal decision that somebody else makes about their own gender identity is just that: personal. It's not my business; it's not yours; and it certainly should not be the business of the government -- or fear fodder for a political campaign.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

We've come a long way, baby…but we're not there yet

Contributed by Carol Rose, ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director and "On Liberty" blogger.

If you or someone you know is a woman, I want to extend this well-earned Equal Pay for Equal Work day greeting to you.

Today, April 20, marks the number of additional days in 2010 that the average woman had to work after December 31, 2009 to earn the same amount that a man earned in 2009 alone.

Can you believe that 90 years after women won the right to vote and nearly 50 years after Congress passed the first Equal Pay Act, women who work full time still earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn? For women of color, the numbers are worse. In 2008, African American women made only 61 cents and Latinas only 52 cents for every dollar earned by white men.

We should be outraged. Working families like mine -- and perhaps like yours -- depend on women to be wage-earners alongside men. In the current economic climate, in particular, entire families feel the pain of wage discrimination.

We're not talking about nickels and dimes here. Former Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor and Brandeis University economist Evelyn Murphy, in her breakthrough research on gender wage discrimination, estimates that chronic wage discrimination translates into lost income of between $700,000 and $2 million over a career.

Wow. Imagine what you or I could do with that kind of hard cash!

The figure is even more alarming when you realize the loss of pension and social security benefits that also occurs when you get underpaid for a lifetime.

Fortunately, we have a perfect opportunity to change this for the better.

At the Massachusetts State House, Rep. Alice Wolfe and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, have introduced legislation that clarifies the definition of "comparable work" to ensure that the gender wage gap is narrowed. Specifically, the bill would define comparable work as "solely based on whether the two positions entail comparable skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions between employees of the opposite sex." That sounds fair.

Similarly, at the federal level, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly and with bipartisan support last year passed the Paycheck Fairness Act (HR12), a bill designed to secure equal pay for equal work for all Americans. The bill relies on basic common sense to ensure equal rights. It would require employers to set wage differentials based on factors other than gender and would prohibit retaliation against workers who inquire about their employers' wage practices.

Perhaps because equal pay for equal work is fair and straightforward, every member of the Massachusetts House delegation voted to support the Paycheck Fairness Act when it passed in 2009.

Now it goes to the Senate. Senator John Kerry and the late Senator Ted Kennedy were co-sponsors of the Senate version of the Paycheck Fairness Act, and Senator Kerry's office confirmed that he is still on board in support of the bill.

I am hopeful that newly-elected Senator Scott Brown also will support the equal pay for equal work bill. Half of the people he represents are women --and an even greater number have women in their families. Senator Brown also might support the bill for personal reasons. After all, his own his family includes a working wife, journalist Gail Huff, and two professionally-minded daughters.

Can you imagine Senator Brown explaining to his wife that she deserves to be paid less than her male television counterparts?

Still, politics being what they are -- and women's paychecks being what they are -- let's not to leave this vote to chance.

I celebrated Equal Pay for Equal Work day by dropping a dime -- the last one I had here in my pocket -- to call Senator Brown's office and ask how he intends to vote.

A staffer in Senator Brown's office said that he didn't know how the Senator would vote, but offered to convey my message urging Senator Brown to vote yes on the Equal Pay for Equal Work bill.

Now it's your turn. Go ahead -- celebrate! Let Senator Brown and Senator Kerry know that you want them to vote in favor of the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 182).

Do it for the women in your life and for working families everywhere. It's only fair.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mad as hell...and having a tea party

By Carol Rose, ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director and "On Liberty" blogger.

One of the best things about living in Massachusetts is that we are so civilized. Yesterday’s tea party on the Boston Common is a perfect example of New England open-mindedness at its best.

In proper Boston style, we opened our beloved Common to some "Gods, Guns & Guts" speeches about our country. One-time SNL comedian Victoria Jackson warmed up the crowd by declaring President Obama to be a "communist." Short-time Alaska Governor Sarah Palin then came to the podium, pulling out her well-worn slogan that, "We'll keep clinging to our Constitution, our guns and our religion -- you can keep the change."

But even after Ms. Jackson and Ms. Palin had their respective shouts, there was no denying that the Tea Party rally on Boston Common tapped into vein of discontent that is important to watch.

Never mind that far fewer people showed up than the 10,000 predicted -- although theaerial photos reveal a surprisingly low turn-out.

So what if local Republican hopefuls -- notably newly-elected Senator Scott Brown and gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker -- found their dance-cards too full to make it?

We’re still better off for hosting the conversation.

So, who was there? The ACLU of Massachusetts sent a few staffers over to check it out.

The tea party crowd was mostly white, mostly middle-age, and mostly middle-class. Many were waving "Don’t Tread on me" flags and were calling for the dismantling of the government, even while proclaiming their love for the Constitution that created it.

There were neo-Nazis, LaRouche supporters, and a bunch of citizens from nearby offices who came out to stand on the edges of the crowd to watch the spectacle.

One long-time ACLU staffer said it felt like red scare redux when Ms. Jackson invoked her 1950s-style anti-commie rhetoric to smear President Obama. Another ACLU staffer wasoverheard by a Boston Globe reporter trying to build common ground with a fellow citizen by conversing about health care reform.

Most disturbingly, a young ACLU organizer -- a recent college grad -- came back shaken when some guy said he’d like to "line up everyone at the ACLU out and shoot them."

Such ugliness, of course, makes the most ardent free-speech defenders worry about the degradation of our political discourse. Even as we celebrate free speech, it is important that we also listen and pay attention to what people are saying -- keeping in mind the blurry line between "differences of opinion" and incitement (and a recent blog by David Bernstein on that topic is worth checking out).

Still, I can't help but feel like our city’s public exercise in free speech on the Common underscores why Massachusetts remains our nation’s true civil liberties frontier -- even more so than, say, Alaska.

I tread on some dangerous territory in making this claim. I hail from the western regions of the United States and still have close relatives in Alaska. I’m no stranger to the frontier mentality.

I live in Massachusetts by choice, because it’s the most freedom-loving state in the Union. This is the home of the original tea party, after all. The "don’t tread on me" motto originated in this part of the country when Ben Franklin and the other American colonists wanted to show the British government that we were as prickly as snakes.

It's a state of mind that continues to resonant with me, as with many others in the Commonwealth – including many at yesterday's rally. But it also makes sense to people who think the government has no business dictating such personal choices as who we marry and whether we want to start a family.

Who among us is immune to the call: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore"? The line from the 1976 satirical movie, "Network," still captures the American zeitgeist of discontent. As you may recall, "Network" features a television newscaster, Howard Beale, who is fired from his network job due to low ratings. In despair over his job loss, the oil crisis, and economic recession, Beale (and his network bosses) soon discover that venting personal anger on camera can move a nation -- and boost a station’s television ratings -- to new highs. It’s a clip worth watching again for anyone interested in that uniquely American mix of populist anger and corporate manipulation.

The same angry high – born of frustration, powerlessness, uncertainty – also fuels today’s Tea Party adherents and the rest of us who feel trapped by forces beyond our control.

As in the Hollywood movie, however, populist anger is easily manipulated by media and financial interests far beyond our every day lives – or our awareness. How many people at yesterday’s rally knew that the event was being underwritten by a bunch of rich old corporate geezers like Dick Armey and Steve Forbes who want nothing more than to keep control of the system, not dismantle it?

But it takes mental effort to look beyond the Boston Common to watch the actual legislative policy debates being played out in Washington. Did you catch the boring Congressional hearing about the absence of corporate accountability in the banking sector during the Bush years?

Okay, neither did I. But I'm paying attention enough to know that our collective anger should be directed against anyone who tries to block government accountability and oversight – and not simply against the government itself.

And when misguided citizens think that young staffers from non-governmental civil liberties groups like the ACLU are the enemy, you know the vested corporate interests are winning the public relations war.

The bread and circus of Ms. Palin, Ms. Jackson, and their crew have moved on – the final stop in their 25 state-tour is today in Washington, D.C. Still, I’m glad we opened the Boston Common to the tea party show. It was the right thing to do.

Thankfully, we can balance what we heard on the Common that with an equal dose of Massachusetts skepticism and common sense – secure in the knowledge that the revolutionary founders of our nation drafted a Constitution and Bill of Rights to defend free speech and other civil liberties against the twin dangers of mob anarchy and totalitarian rule.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Why Justice Stevens matters

By Carol Rose, ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director

Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Known for his personal modesty and independent legal reasoning, Justice Stevens embodies the best of the American judiciary.

Already, pundits have started speculating who will be the next appointee to the highest court in the land -- including some critical insights on what Justice Stevens' retirement could mean for American jurisprudence.

Politicians, meanwhile, are positioning themselves for what is bound to be a highly partisan and bruising confirmation battle between the White House and the Senate -- a prospect that makes one feel weary just thinking about it.

A constructive place to start the public conversation is to reflect on the many contributions to individual liberty that Justice Stevens made as a Supreme Court justice -- and why each of us should be grateful for the freedom we enjoy as a result.

Appointed by Gerald Ford in 1975, Justice Stevens earned an early reputation as a maverick. Upon his retirement some 35 years later, he was known as a master tactician, champion of individual liberty, and fierce defender of our nation's system of checks and balances.

Perhaps due to his early years as a practicing lawyer, Justice Stevens always was highly attuned to the facts of a case. He never forgot that the lives of real human beings are affected by legal rulings. Such real-world experience will be sorely missed, particularly when compared to the academic backgrounds and abstract judicial reasoning of many of the current Justices and potential nominees.

Consider the real lives made better by Justice Stevens. On the high court, he promotedracial equality, supported gay rights and defended a woman’s right to choose. He authored the first decision recognizing free speech rights on the Internet and just a few years ago concluded that the death penalty is unconstitutional.

In one of his final opinions -- a dissent from the majority ruling in the Citizen's United caseregarding campaign finance and corporate speech --Justice Stevens' real-world understanding of the facts was clearly evident in his warning that unfettered corporate speech would drown out the "voice of the real people." (Full disclosure: the ACLU submitted a narrow amicus brief on the other side in that case and currently the national organization is engaged in a review of its position on campaign finance reform).

Justice Stevens also made history when he authored two of the four critical decisions that reasserted the right of the Court to rein in the excesses of the Executive Branch. Without his leadership, the Bush administration might well as succeeded in its effort to hold even innocent people indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay -- without any rights or any access to U.S. courts.

Justice Stevens seemed to understand that at stake was not simply the fate of the Guatanamo detainees but, as important, the fate of American democracy and the rule of law itself.

From beginning to end, Justice Stevens has been an independent thinker, fiercely committed to the rule of the law and the Court’s role in preserving it. Our nation would be well served by holding him out as the standard bearer for our next justice.

On pins and needles defending artistic expression

By Carol Rose, ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director

Stroll down any Massachusetts street on a sunny day and you are will see a lot of bare skin adorned with some nifty (and some not-so-nice) tattoos.

Once the emblem of American GI's and Japanese yakuzas, tattoos have become ubiquitous among the under-30 crowd. It's the rare person who hasn't fallen under the spell of the needle and dye. Even the trend-setting Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston is opening an exhibit next week featuring Mexican tattoo artist, Dr. Lakra.

But did you know that tattooing was recently illegal in Massachusetts and many other states? It's true. It took a lawsuit by the ACLU in 2000 to strike down restrictions on tattoo artists in Massachusetts, thus ensuring that this ancient form of self-expression is no longer criminalized in our Commonwealth.

On April 15 at 7 p.m., the ICA will feature a conversation about the case with ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch, who was co-counsel with Harvey Schwartz in litigating the challenge to the Massachusetts law banning tattooing.

To some people, such legal victories seem only skin deep. But on closer examination, the right to tattoo is part and parcel of our right to artistic expression.

The art of "body art" goes back literally thousands of years. Tattooed mummies have been found in all parts of the world, including Egypt, Libya, Asia and South America. A five thousand year old man, nick-named "otzi the ice man" by the people who dug him up, reportedly bore 57 tattoos -- although they may have simply been scars from arthritis (apparently it can be hard to tell the difference after 5,000 years).

The first tattoo shop in New York was set up in 1846 and came to Boston soon thereafter. Soldiers from both sides in the civil war revived the ancient tradition of wearing tattoos as a sign of military prowess. Today, surveys show that more than one-third of Americans under age 30 have tattoos, and the numbers are growing.

Despite the historical persistence of tattooing, however, the law on tattooing as free expression isn't a slam-dunk. States have some right to ensure the sanitary operation of tattoo parlors and courts are still sorting out the hard cases, such as whether employers can require employees to cover tattoos. But our nation nonetheless has made progress in defense of tattooing as a fundamental form of artistic expression. Even South Carolina and Oklahoma -- two hold-out states -- recently passed laws legalizing tattooing as skin art.

Personally, I am content to let the Mother Nature etch her motif into my tender hide without additional help from dye and needles. But even I can't resist the fascination with tattooing as an ancient and compelling form of human expression. As the ICA enticement for its upcoming show attests: "From cave walls to touch screens, no surface is off limits to the creativity of artists and designers. What about the most accessible surface of all, our own bodies?"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

MBTA embraces Mass tech community -- instead of suing it

The Globe reports today in T taps tech-savvy to keep riders in loop that a 42-year-old software engineer has created an LED sign to show the real arrival time for the next two buses at the stop closest to his home in Jamaica Plain. It took him only an afternoon's work, and $350 worth of equipment.

Reporter Eric Moskowitz writes that the ability of a volunteer to do this is among:
the first results of a trial program in which the MBTA, once a careful guardian of its data, is now sharing information freely with local software developers, web entrepreneurs, and at-home tinkerers to see if they can do better than the T itself at finding innovative ways to keep commuters up to date.

Hooray! It wasn't so long ago that the MBTA was suing people who took these kinds of liberties.

In summer 2008, the MBTA sued to "gag" three MIT students whose research highlighted flaws in the T's electronic "Charlie Card" and "Charlie Ticket" payment systems. The ACLU of Massachusetts helped to defend the students, and on August 19, 2008, U.S. District Court Judge George A. O'Toole, Jr., rejected continuation of the gag order.

The students -- whose work was for a class on computer and network security, and for which they received an "A" from MIT Professor Ronald R. Rivest -- said that they never planned to release the information needed to actually breach the MBTA fare payment systems. They withheld key details from slides they prepared for a conference presentation in order to prevent malicious use of their work, and even provided a report on their findings to the MBTA.

I hope this new openness at the MBTA continues. The agency -- stuck with more than $8 billion in debt, much of which was incurred for the sake of the Big Dig -- has problems that probably can't be solved by hobbyists. But while waiting for the next bus or train, it couldn't hurt to know more about what to expect.

Friday, April 2, 2010

What Ann Coulter and Hillary Clinton have in common

From Carol Rose, our Executive Director and Blogger:

What do Ann Coulter and Hillary Clinton have in common? These doyennes from opposite ends of the American political spectrum both have been in the news defending freedom of speech.

Coulter, a right-wing polemicist, was
kept off the stage at the University of Ottawa in Canada last week by protestors who effectively used a "heckler's veto" to keep Coulter from speaking after she made ignorant and offensive remarks about Muslims.

Coulter expressed outrage, saying, "I go to the best schools, Harvard, the Ivy League and those kids are too intellectually proud to threaten speakers."

Given Coulter's stated commitment to free speech, you'd think she and her friends over at FOX television would applaud the recent move by Secretary of State Clinton to lift a Bush administration-imposed ban on two renowned scholars who were kept out of the U.S. because of their political views. Instead,
Fox & Friends objected when one of those scholars -- noted South African political scientist Adam Habib -- was invited to speak at Harvard Law School yesterday.

What is up with that? It sure smells like a double standard to me.

Professor Habib and Professor Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss scholar from Oxford University,
were turned away from our borders by Bush administration officials for no apparent reason other than the fact that they publicly criticized U.S. foreign policy.

Professor Habib had trained in the U.S. and was a frequent visitor to the U.S. He was part of a high-ranking delegation scheduled to meet with officials at the National Science Foundation, the Center for Disease Control, the World Bank, Columbia University and the Gates Foundation, among others, when he was instead detained for seven hours at JFK airport and thereafter denied a visa to enter the U.S. Professor Ramadan had been offered a job as a professor at Notre Dame when the Bush administration revoked his visa. Although Bush administration officials later accused Professor Ramadan of having once given money to a Swiss charity that, years later, the U.S. government put on a terrorist watch list, the State Department now concedes that neither Professor Ramadan nor Professor Habib were ever true terrorist threats.

To the contrary, both professors are outspoken critics of terrorism. They also have made statements critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (a position also espoused by President Obama during the last presidential campaign), and that seems to be the main reason they were excluded from our shores.

Simply put: these scholars were turned away so that we, the American people, couldn't hear what they have to say in person.

It's called "ideological exclusion." And it's a practice you find in dictatorships like Iran and Zimbabwe -- and in the less noble moments of American history as well.

The list of people kept out of the United States under policies of ideological exclusion reads like a veritable "Who's Who" of people most of us would like to meet: South African leader Nelson Mandela, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, poet Pablo Neruda, and authors Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name just a few.

This time around, the
ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the practice of ideological exclusion under the legal theory that the American people have a right to hear what people like Professors Habib and Ramadan have to say and that government censorship at the borders is wrong.

With legal proceedings still going on in both cases, the Obama Administration reviewed the Bush era decisions and Secretary of State Clinton agreed that neither Habib nor Ramadan should be barred from coming to the U.S. for the reasons – acknowledged now to be baseless – that had been given by the previous administration.

Thanks to Secretary Clinton's willingness to lift the Bush ban, Professor Habib yesterday was able to join a delegation of distinguished scholars visiting Harvard University and was able to talk -- face-to-face -- with Americans who wanted to hear what he had to say:

"When the United States as a superpower violates civil liberties, it has a ripple effect across the globe," said Professor Habib. "This case was very important because it opens the space for us to talk and engage as human beings… This is a case about principles."

In other words, Habib was eloquent and inspiring -- and not the least bit scary.

By wiping out the ideological exclusion orders against scholars like Professors Habib and Ramadan, Secretary of State Clinton demonstrates our nation's willingness to air all views -- including dissenting political views. It's a fundamental principle of American freedom that Anthony Lewis so eloquently defends in his must-read book,
"Freedom for the Thoughts We Hate." As a next step, the Obama Administration should announce that it categorically rejects the practice of ideological exclusion as a violation of freedom of speech in all cases.

Let the American people hear what Professors Habib and Ramadan and others like them have to say -- in person. If Ann Coulter comes to Harvard, we should let her speak as well. And when we disagree, let us do so face to face.