Happy Independence Day!

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." More than likely, Thomas Jefferson could not foresee how true those words would ring throughout the development of our nation.

Today we celebrate the Fourth of July, the day we declared our independence from England. The signers of the Declaration of Independence asserted their right to be free from religious oppression, and taxation without representation, among many others. Indeed, the first paragraph of the Declaration after the preamble holds some of the most powerful words in American history:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it

It seems absurd that in 2012, two hundred and thirty six years after these words were penned, that we continually struggle to attain what we declared in 1776. Every day the ACLU fights for the rights of Americans to be equal, to obtain liberty, and to be able to pursue happiness in this country. Throughout our history, there have been great advances in equality and a proper application of the unalienable rights the founding fathers recognized, however we, as a country, continually fall short and slide back into the mode of oppression that we fought so hard to be independent from.

The ideals Americans espoused in the Declaration of Independence and founded through the Constitution are not mere recommendations. They are the ideals that this country was founded on - ideals that have been lost. Instead of all people being created equal and endowed with unalienable rights, we continue to see laws made by the minority of rich and powerful people for their own benefit. Children born in this country to immigrant parents are no longer seen as citizens, they are seen as a second class problem. People are not seen as equal, they are seen as races. Love between two people, if they are of the same gender, is not a proper pursuit of happiness.

The work of the ACLU is to be eternally vigilant. To uphold and strive for the goals the Declaration of Independence held out for us. Work that seems to never end regardless of the very bedrock we supposedly founded our nation on. So enjoy the barbeques and fireworks today, then start tomorrow off right by continuing to fight for the lofty ideals of freedom, justice and independence our nation fought for so long ago.

It's Been Established

The issue of school-sponsored prayers in public schools, one of the most debated and publically misunderstood issues we work on here at the ACLU, never came up during my primary and secondary education.

Growing up and receiving my kindergarten through sixth grade education in Taiwan, I wasn’t aware of school-sponsored prayers and quite frankly, another set of rules applied there. After we moved to America, I spent my years in middle school frantically learning English; any prayers would have gone by unnoticed. I was enrolled in a private Catholic high school – my parents favored its smaller class sizes – and prayer was an everyday – and sometimes a multiple times per day – occurrence. School policy stated that I was not required to participate but needed to be respectfully silent, which I was.

My educational journey is fairly uncommon and my time spent in public schools was limited. Perhaps that is why I was surprised to learn about the ongoing campaign to reintroduce religion in public schools. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale (1962), decided 50 years ago this week, held that an official school-sponsored prayer in public schools stood in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Despite that, many school districts and states have attempted to reestablish school-sponsored prayer in various forms – such as prayers led by religious authority figures at public school graduation ceremonies, in Lee v. Weisman (1992) and prayers conducted via public address system, in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000). Both activities were ruled unconstitutional.

Coincidentally, though likely not, both activities were present at my high school. We did have prayers led by religious figures at graduation ceremonies as well as other events, and we did have prayers over the intercom. However, my family and I knew exactly what we were getting and what we were giving up when we selected a private Catholic school. Public schools are a different matter. Public schools should not be promoting particular religious or anti-religious beliefs and have a responsibility to protect children from being coerced by others to accept religious or anti-religious beliefs.

School-sponsored prayers and religion make individuals who do not share that belief feel alienated and like second-class citizens. At the ACLU of Nevada, we respect and protect religious liberty. True religious freedom gives everyone the right to make their decisions regarding religion or lack thereof. We protect public school students’ religious freedom by curbing the practice of school-sponsored religion. We defend students' rights to freely express and exercise their faith. We request those who believe one religion should be declared official in public schools to be respectfully silent while others are practicing their faith.

Learn more about the ACLU’s history of upholding religious freedom and the work we have done in Nevada.

Title IX: Ending Sex-Based Discrimination in Education

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I never stepped near a sport in high school or college, so I didn’t think that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 had any noticeable impact on my education.

Most people know Title IX because of its impact on women’s and girls’ athletics, but the law seeks to end sex-based discrimination in all aspects of education. The overarching purpose of the law is to ensure that all students, regardless of their sex, have access to the same educational opportunities in school and in extracurricular programs, so that boys and girls alike can achieve their full potential.

This means that schools may not rely on harmful gender stereotypes to separate boys and girls or offer them different educational programming. It also means that schools must prevent and respond to sexual harassment, bullying of students who do not conform to gender stereotypes and physical violence such as rape and sexual assault. It even means that students who become pregnant or who are caring for a child are allowed to finish their education free from discouragement or hostility. So Title IX isn’t just for female student athletes, it is for students, whether they are male or female, gay or straight or transgender (according to some courts and the Obama administration), whether they are on the soccer team or the chess club, whether they take AP Calculus or Home Economics.

It may seem obvious now to say that young men and women deserve an equal opportunity to receive a quality education and pursue their goals free of sex stereotypes. But before Title IX, that wasn’t the case.

My mother was one of just a very small handful of women in her class to graduate with an engineering degree in the 1970s. In high school, I was actively encouraged to take upper-level math and science courses, and I graduated from college with a minor in math. My college math and programming classes still had more men than women, but not significantly more and it was certainly more balanced than my mother’s classes.

Women now earn about half of all degrees in science and engineering fields, including the social and behavioral sciences. In 1971, women earned about 29% of these degrees. And instead of women making up 0.8% (!) of engineering degrees like we did in 1971, we now comprise 18.5%, which is certainly a far cry from ideal, but still a long way from pre-Title IX days. (And check out this interesting chart from feminist.org)

Tomorrow, June 23, marks the 40th Anniversary of Title IX, a law that has fundamentally changed the face of education – so fundamentally, in fact, that most people think it only applies to athletics. And while women have made great advances in 40 years, on the field and in the classroom, we still have some more progress to make.

America's Prisons Are Becoming Nursing Homes

Since the passing of “three strikes” and similar “tough on crime” laws there have been far reaching effects that were either not considered or ignored. In essence, habitual criminals, or persons found guilty of three felonies, violent or not, would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years. A person who broke into a home twice, then 10 years later, gets caught with 1.3 oz of marijuana is subject to the same penalty as a person who has raped and killed three women. Not only is the law draconian but one of the biggest ramifications is due to the exaggerated sentences the population of the elderly (50+) prisoners is increasing at an alarming rate.

In 1981 there were 8,853 persons 55 or over in a federal prison. In 2010 that number has jumped to 124,900 and it is estimated that in 2030 that number will jump to 400,000. In other words, the elderly prison population is expected in increase by 4,400%. These numbers do not include the 50-54 age group. We now have a significant population of people in jail, who, in most instances, could not commit a crime if they wanted to, are no longer considered a risk to society or themselves and are expensive to take care of and tax payers are footing the bill. It is estimated, that for each elderly inmate released, the state would save $66,294 per year. The aging population has the same aging issues as persons who are not incarcerated however, one must consider that persons who have been incarcerated generally have higher stressors, inadequate health care and are in poorer health than the general public which socially adds 10-15 years of age. 

The three strikes laws held no provision for the release of people once it is determined they are no longer a threat to society, and in states that do have a release provision, it is often extremely narrow in scope and the process is difficult to maneuver. The prisons have become [inadequate] nursing homes. With the release of the ACLU’s report, At America's Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly, it is clearly evident that provisions need to be enacted that allow for the release of elderly prisoners and that the old, outdated “tough on crime” sentencing structures need to be reformed.

Concern About Police Drones

The idea of police drones flying over Nevada has attracted a great deal of media and public attention over the past few weeks even though no drones are FAA-licensed for use in our state.

One reason is that in February Congress passed a bill, then signed by President Obama, requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to publish regulations within 90 days making it easier and faster for drone licenses to be issued. And it wasn’t as if there weren’t any already. Currently there are about 300 Certificates of Authorizations (COA), and that 42 of them have been issued to public entities. The FAA has issued 700 to 750 COAs since 2006.

The second reason is that Nevadans can easily see especially larger police departments in the state, such as Las Vegas Metro, Reno, Washoe County, and North Las Vegas, etc., acquiring drone technology. Certainly they have enough money, and Nevada police departments are not shy about using new technologies, such as cellphone tracking or posted cameras that can see things seven blocks away. In addition, one look at which other police departments have drones makes it obvious that Nevada’s could, too. Those other police forces include Arlington (Texas), North Little Rock (Ark.), Gadsden (Ala.), Mesa County (Ariz.), Miami-Dade County (Fla.), Ogden (Utah), Seattle (Wash.), and Orange County (Calif.).

The third reason is that drones have caught the attention of the general interest mass media: ranging from “Here’s Looking at You,” an article in the May 14, 2012, issue of The New Yorker magazine, to, in Las Vegas, being covered in several different ways by Channel 3 reporters and commentators.

The national ACLU issued a report in December 2011, “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft.” It outlines ways in which drones already are used by American governments, such as along the U.S.-Mexican border, and ways that local police could. It’s an ominous picture, frankly. The report outlines the ACLU’s specific concerns about police use of drones: “mission creep” (a drone initially bought for search-and-rescue is later used to hover continuously over a crime suspect’s house); tracking (like cellphone tracking or putting a GPS device on a citizen’s car); and new uses (such as potentially controlling protesters, stopping a fleeing vehicle, or even deploying weapons). The report asserted obvious or potential effects of police drone use: chilling effects on the public (people behave differently when watched, and not always for the better); voyeurism by rogue police; discriminatory targeting (e.g. racial profiling); institutional abuse, such as police chiefs or sheriffs deciding to spy on protesters; and problems of automated enforcement (drones cannot assess situations involving humans that another human can).

The national and Nevada ACLU recommend usage restrictions on police drones (such as not being used for mass surveillance or monitoring of First Amendment-protected activities); image retention restrictions; public input into, and public notice of, overall deployment policies; and auditing/effectiveness tracking.

Not only are those steps good public policy in a functioning democracy, but Fourth Amendment law may be helpful. While the U.S. Supreme Court has not taken a position on limits of unmanned aircraft, it stated in Dow Chemical v. US (1986), “surveillance of private property by using highly sophisticated surveillance equipment not generally available to the public, such as satellite technology, might be constitutionally proscribed absent a [search] warrant.” And in January’s decision in United States v. Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited attaching a GPS device to car for 28 days and said that surveillance without trespassing still may be an “unconstitutional invasion of privacy.”

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