aclu

Muslim Civil Rights Group Seeks Clarification on Hijab in Michigan Courts

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is seeking clarification on a new administrative rule adopted by Michigan’s Supreme Court that could allow judges to demand that witnesses remove religious head coverings while testifying.

The Washington-based group says that the removal of religiously-mandated attire such as a hijab would violate the constitutional right to religious freedom. In a press release, Dawud Walid of Michigan’s CAIR chapter said, “Michigan residents of all faiths need clarification as to whether they will be forced to remove their religious attire in order to appear in a state court.” The group says that the rule could be used against people of other faiths who wear head coverings.

The rule was adopted by the Supreme Court via a 5-2 decision. The two opposing judges said that there should be a clear written exception fore religious attire.

As it currently stands, the rule reads:

“The court shall exercise reasonable control over the appearance of parties and witnesses so as to (1) ensure that the demeanor of such persons may be observed and assessed by the fact-finder, and (2) to ensure the accurate identification of such persons.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has furthered argued against the rule saying that numerous studies have shown that jurors have an easier time assessing the credibility of a witness testimony by simply listening to a witness rather than watching their facial expressions.

Government Targeting of Muslim Charities Stifling Religious Expression

A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) titled “Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity” finds that U.S. anti-terrorism laws that target charitable giving are preventing Muslims from practicing their religion through charitable giving and are consequently impacting the perception of the United States in the Muslim world. The report argues that the U.S. government appears to many Muslims to be at war against Islam and that the lack of charitable contributions undermines humanitarian aid efforts in parts of the world where it could be key in helping to improve the United States’ image.

The report writes of the stifling impact of terrorism finance investigations:

The ACLU also found that there is a common perception among many members of the Muslim communities in Michigan and Texas that those active with Muslim community and religious organizations will be targeted for interviews with law enforcement or for criminal charges on account of their constitutionally protected association with legitimate Muslim community and religious organizations. Our research reveals that this perception of the price of association with Muslim community and religious organizations affects Muslims’ participation in Muslim community organizations.

As noted in the above excerpt, the ACLU interview several members of the Muslim community in Michigan:

In Michigan, 33 individuals were interviewed in Metro Detroit and Flint each expressing their concern over the government’s questioning of Muslim donors, the raids of large U.S. Muslim charities and the consequent chilling effect on their participation in religious activities such as congregational Friday prayer, Eid celebrations at the conclusion of Ramadan, and other communal religious activities.

The report further documents cases of Muslim charities being closed and raided in Michigan, along with questioning of donors and surveillance of Mosques.

A video released along with the report has more information on the issue:

New Michigan Driver’s License Threatens Privacy

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan has issued a new action alert opposing Michigan Enhanced Driver’s License.

According to the ACLU, border crossings from Michigan into Canada will require travelers to show a passport, a WHTI (Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative) passcard, or a Michigan Enhanced Driver’s License–all three of which include Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips that can hold an unknown amount of personal information and can be read from up to a football field away. Over the years, RFID chips have been criticized for the ease at which they can be abused.

The ACLU writes:

Although this is a frightening concept, what’s more concerning is that the new Michigan Enhanced Driver’s License (EDL) would have an unencrypted RFID chip that will contain a new unique citizen ID number with no legal guidelines for its use. Because this RFID chip is unencrypted, it can be read wirelessly by anyone with a reader through a wallet and even walls, at distances of 30 feet.

The chips are included through an agreement between Michigan and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

In Canada, the use of RFID has been criticized according to the ACLU:

Canada has already sounded the alarm bells regarding the use of RFID technology due to significant privacy concerns and the potential misuse of shared databases between the United States, Mexico and Canada. This past February, the City of Ottawa sent back one of their databases because of potential misuse. Saskatchewan scrapped the entire enhanced driver’s license (EDL) program altogether.

The ACLU is calling on Governor Jennifer Granholm to cancel the agreement and order a review of RFID use in Michigan’s driver’s licenses.

Briefs Filed in Support of Preacher Sentenced to Prison for Criticizing Judge

Rev. Pinkney had Three Friend-of-the-Court Briefs Filed on his Behalf this week

The Benton Harbor community activist Rev. Edward Pinkney–who had his been the target of a wide-ranging campaign of repression that he charges is politically motivated–had three friend-of-the-court briefs filed earlier this week on his behalf in a case in which he was sentenced to 3-10 years in prison for criticizing a judge.

Pinkney, who is now represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), had his probation revoked following a newspaper article he wrote in 2007. In that article, Pinkney quoted a Bible verse and predicted that God would punish the judge unless he “hearken[ed] unto the voice of the Lord thy God to observe [and] to do all that is right.” Pinkney also expressed his opinion that the judge was racist, dumb, and corrupt. The judge resentenced him to 3-10 years in prison for violating his probation.

The ACLU eventually took up the case, arguing that Pinkney’s claims were constitutionally protected speech. In support of this argument, over a dozen national and local faith-based organizations, a group of law professors, and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Speech, filed three friend-of-the court briefs.

They include:

  • The religious freedom brief represents the views of a wide array of religious and faith-based groups including: the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Congress, the Christian Legal Society, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Liberty Legal Institute, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, the National Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Gamaliel Foundation, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, and Rev. Harry T. Cook.

    According to the brief, Rev. Pinkney’s article is “a textbook example of one important rhetorical and theological tradition within both Christianity and Judaism… Quoting scripture is core religious speech; the Framers of the First Amendment could not have imagined that it would ever be a criminal offense to quote scripture.”

  • The professors’ brief represents the views of 18 law professors at the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law, Wayne State University Law School, the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and the Thomas M. Cooley Law School. The brief explains that under well-established constitutional law, Rev. Pinkney’s newspaper editorial could not be the basis for punishment in a court of law. “In this country, under this Constitution, and on this Court’s watch,” they explained, “he must not be imprisoned for speaking his conscience.”
  • The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression argued in its brief that Rev. Pinkney’s editorial was not a “true threat” under well-established First Amendment law. According to the Center’s brief, “In finding that Rev. Pinkney’s newspaper editorial violated his conditions of probation, the lower court punished speech at the core of First Amendment protection: public criticism of the judiciary.” The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression is a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution dedicated solely to the protection of the First Amendment rights of free speech and free press.

ACLU Challenges Unlawful Voter Disenfranchisement in Michigan

The ACLU of Michigan Filed a Lawsuit over Unlawful Voter Disenfranchisement

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan filed a motion last week on behalf of a Michigan resident who was disenfranchised by Michigan’s unlawful voter purging program.

According to the ACLU, Lisa A. Blehm was disenfranchised because she obtained a driver’s license in Georgia. Blehm registered to vote in Michigan in 2006 but moved to Georgia temporarily in 2007 to join her husband who was stationed there temporarily as a Marine. Blehm obtained a driver’s license in Georgia but specifically declined to register to vote because she intended to return to Michigan. She returned to Michigan in June of 2008. When she tried to vote in November, she as told by a poll worker that she was not registered to vote and could not vote in the election. The poll worker failed to give her a provisional ballot.

Blehm was the victim of a statewide voter purging program that removes approximately 72,000 voters from Michigan’s voting rolls each year. The program removes Michigan voters who receive driver’s licenses in other states without issuing any kind of notice.

The ACLU contends that this violates the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993.

In October of 2008, US District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III ruled that this program did indeed violate the NVRA but the state refused to reinstate purged voters.

Grand Rapids Surveillance Camera Map Featured on ACLU Site

Grand Rapids Surveillance Camera Map Featured on ACLU Site

An older MediaMouse.org project–a map of surveillance cameras in downtown Grand Rapids–has been featured on the homepage of YouAreBeingWatched.us. While we’re not big on self-promotion, it seemed worth mentioning as means of highlighting an older MediaMouse.org project as well as the larger issue of surveillance that motivated the project.

YouAreBeingWatched.us is a website launched by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to “spotlight the high costs of camera surveillance systems, both in terms of money and civil liberties.” The ACLU provides a useful summary of the issue:

“An increasing number of American cities and towns are investing millions of taxpayer dollars in surveillance camera systems. But few are closely examining the costs and benefits of those investments, or creating mechanisms for measuring those costs and benefits over time. There is extensive academic literature on the subject — studies carried out over many years — and that research demonstrates that video surveillance has no statistically significant effect on crime rates.

The bottom line is: Are cameras worth the cost in terms of money and civil liberties? Cities and states are still wasting limited security budget dollars on camera surveillance systems. In the last five years, the US Department of Homeland Security had handed out about $300 million in grants for camera surveillance systems. These funds could have gone toward hiring more experienced police officers, improving equipment for first-responders so that they can be ready to help in cases of emergency or other such security needs.

And consider the civil liberty costs of video surveillance systems. Video surveillance technology will only grow more sophisticated. There will come a day when the cameras will be routinely linked with other technologies in attempt to instantly identify you and me via face recognition, RFIDs, or other technologies. Do we want a society where an innocent individual can’t walk down the street without being considered a potential criminal? Do we want a society where people are comfortable with constant surveillance?”

The site publishes recent news articles about video surveillance, background information, and state-level information.

An example of the state-level news highlighting is shown by the website’s linking to an article in The Muskegon Chronicle that highlights a new camera deployed in one of the city’s parks.

Court Decision Paves Way for Release of Activist

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Earlier this week, a Court of Appeals decision paved the way for the possible release of imprisoned Benton Harbor activist Rev. Edward Pinkney.

The ruling comes in a case where Pinkney is serving three to ten years in prison for criticizing a judge in a newspaper article. The Michigan ACLU–who took up Pinkney’s case last month–is calling the decision a victory. The ACLU had argued that while Pinkney’s comments were offensive to many, they were protected First Amendment speech.

Pinkney remains in prison, but the Court of Appeals has granted the ACLU’s motion and has asked the Berrien County Circuit Court to set the amount of bond. No hearing date has been scheduled yet, but the ACLU plans to ask for the earliest date possible.

ACLU Urges State Senate to Pass Bill Ending Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles

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The ACLU of Michigan is urging the Michigan Senate to adopt a package of bills passed by the Michigan House last week that would prohibit the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without parole.

The ACLU is asking that people send email letters to their state senators telling them to pass the bill.

In Michigan, there are currently 300 individuals serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as children. Michigan’s laws are some of the harshest in the country. While 43 other states have similar laws, Michigan is one five states that account for two-thirds of youth imprisoned under these laws. Judges and juries in Michigan are given little leeway in sentencing. For example, laws require sentencing juveniles convicted of “felony murder” to be sentenced to life without parole even if they did not commit the crime and were merely present when someone was murdered.

The ACLU further argues that these mandatory sentencing laws are another example of institutionalized racism in the US, as 69% of people receiving these sentences are African-Americans although African-Americans make up only 15% of Michigan’s population.

Because conditions in Michigan prisons–and the prison system as a whole–are often neglected, we’re reprinting a fact sheet from the ACLU of Michigan on children serving life sentences:

* Each year in Michigan, children as young as thirteen are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison without opportunity for parole. Despite a global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults, the United States allows children to be treated and punished the same as adults. Children are increasingly excluded from the protection of juvenile courts based on the nature of the offense, without any consideration of age, maturity or culpability of the child, and without taking steps to ensure their understanding of the legal system under which they are prosecuted.

* Life sentences without possibility of parole have been renounced internationally as a violation of human rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child which specifically forbids sentences of life imprisonment for children under the age of eighteen. The United States stands alone in rejecting this article of the Convention and in the implementation of this sentence on adolescents convicted of crimes.

* Even more disheartening, we can recognize early signs of juvenile delinquency, but we do very little to stop the inevitable streamlining of troubled youth in to prisons. We are failing our children before we even sentence them to life without parole by simply denying them their right to an education. Children who are forced out of the education system by suspensions, expulsions or because of learning disabilities are more likely to commit crimes. Over 70% of juveniles serving life without parole in Michigan were not attending school at the time of their crime. When they were attending school the majority of juvenile offenders reported that they were either enrolled in special education courses or experienced learning difficulties, but were not given the special help they needed it be successful.

* Michigan now has the second highest percentage of juveniles serving life without parole–Louisiana has the highest. There are currently more than 308 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences. The automatic, mandatory and permanent sentencing laws leave no room to reasonably assess the juvenile’s growth or maturity or to individually assess the need for continued incarceration.

* Passage of juvenile life reform legislation does not guarantee release. It only provides an opportunity for a parole board to evaluate whether the individual, now grown and matured, is a current threat to public safety. This legislation allows for a fair evaluation of those sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed when they were a minor. Further, the cost of incarcerating a juvenile for life–without ever evaluating whether they are truly a continued risk to society is over $1 million dollars per child.

In 2004, the ACLU of Michigan released a report on juveniles receiving life sentences.

Additionally, the harsh sentences handed out to juvenile offenders by the states have also drawn the attention of the United Nations. The United States is the only country that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child that would prohibit these mandatory sentences.

ACLU Representing Minister Imprisoned for Criticizing Judge

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Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties of Union (ACLU) of Michigan agreed to represent the Reverend Edward Pinkney in a controversial case over the limits of the First Amendment and is calling for Pinkney’s release from an Upper Peninsula prison on bond.

Pinkney–an African-American community activist in Benton Harbor–has been in the public eye over a series of debates about the direction of development in the city, race relations, and city politics. Pinkney has been a steadfast critic of the politicians and the judicial system in Berrien County, often exposing the way in which race impacts politics in the predominantly white St. Joseph and the predominantly black Benton Harbor.

As part of his ongoing organizing, Pinkey engaged in a recall campaign against a Benton Harbor City Commission. Out of that campaign, Pinkney was eventually charged with violating Michigan’s election law, to which he was sentenced a year in prison and five years of probation in May of 2007. He was allowed to begin serving probation at that time and was set to begin the prison time at a later date.

However, in December of 2007, Pinkney’s probation was revoked after his probation officer became aware of a newspaper article in which Pinkney criticized the judge in his case. That set off a process in which Pinkney was eventually resentenced to three to ten years in prison.

According to the court, Pinkney threatened the judge in the case when he criticized him. In a legal brief, the ACLU writes:

“In 2007, Rev. Pinkney was convicted of violating Michigan election law and sentenced to probation. But his probation was revoked, and he was resentenced to three to ten years in prison, solely because he wrote a newspaper editorial highly critical of the judge who presided at his trial. Quoting a passage from the Bible, Rev. Pinkney predicted that God would curse the judge and his family unless the judge “hearken[ed] unto the voice of the Lord they God to observe [and] to do all that is right.” Rev. Pinkney also expressed his opinion that the judge was racist, dumb, and corrupt. The

The statements Rev. Pinkney made in his newspaper editorial, while offensive to many are clearly protected speech under the First Amendment to the United States constitution. At the very least, whether his statements are protected constitutes a substantial ground for appeal. His statement regarding God’s curses upon the trial judge was not a “true threat” and the First Amendment does not tolerate a blanket prohibition on the ability of a probationer to criticize public officials.”

In the brief, the ACLU argues that is legal precedent for Pinkeny’s speech being protected. Moreover, it argues that a term of Pinkney’s probation is overbroad and does not survive Constitutional scrutiny. That term read:

“You must not engage in any assault, abusive, defamatory, demeaning, harassing, violent, threatening, or intimidating behavior, including the use, through any electronic or print media under your care, custody or control, of the mail, e-mail, or internet.”

The ACLU argues that this condition is an unconstitutional prohibition of legally protected First Amendment speech.

They are calling for Pinkney’s release on bond pending the resolution of his appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Report: US Military Recruiting Violates International Protocols

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has released a new report charging that the United States is failing to uphold its commitments to safeguard the rights of youth under 18 from military recruitment and to guarantee basic protections to foreign former child soldiers. The allegations are detailed in a report titled “Soldiers of Misfortune” released yesterday by the ACLU that has been submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The report details a number of recruiter abuses and objectionable recruiting tactics. The report’s executive summary explains how these tactics violate international protocols:

“The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (Optional Protocol) is meant to safeguard the rights of children under 18 from military recruitment and deployment to war, and to guarantee basic protections to former child soldiers, whether they are seeking refugee protection in the United States or are in U.S. custody for alleged crimes.

The U.S. Senate ratified the Optional Protocol in December 2002. By signing and ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the U.S. bound itself to comply with the obligations contained in the Optional Protocol. The Optional Protocol provides that the absolute minimum age for voluntary recruitment is 16 years old. It also instructs countries to set their own minimum age by submitting a binding declaration, and the United States entered a binding declaration raising this minimum age to 17. Therefore, recruitment of youth ages 16 and under is categorically disallowed in the United States.

The Optional Protocol imposes special minimum safeguards for the recruitment of 17-year-olds, requiring that military recruitment activities directed at 17-year-olds be carried out with the consent of the child’s parents or guardians. The Optional Protocol also requires that recruitment must be genuinely voluntary, and that the military must fully inform youth of the duties involved in military service. In addition, the Optional Protocol requires underage recruits to provide reliable proof of age prior to acceptance into military service. The Optional Protocol also requires the United States to take all feasible measures to ensure that 17-year-old members of the armed forces do not take part in hostilities.

Public schools serve as prime recruiting grounds for the military, and the U.S. military’s generally accepted procedures for recruitment of high school students plainly violate the Optional Protocol. In its initial report to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, the U.N. body charged with monitoring compliance with the Optional Protocol, the U.S. Government claims that “[n]o one under age 17 is eligible for recruitment.” In practice, however, the U.S. armed services regularly target children under 17 for military recruitment, heavily recruiting on high school campuses, in school lunchrooms, and in classes. Department of Defense instructions to recruiters, the U.S. military’s collection of information on hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds, and military training corps for children as young as 11 reveal that students are targeted for recruitment as early as possible. By exposing children younger than 17 to military recruitment, the United States military violates the terms of the Optional Protocol.

U.S. military recruitment of youth under 18 also frequently violates the minimum safeguards required by the Optional Protocol. Wartime enlistment quotas have placed increased pressure on military recruiters to fill the ranks of the armed services. The added strain of fulfilling enlistment quotas necessary to carry out sustained U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan without reinstituting a draft has contributed to a rise in aggressive recruitment efforts and allegations of misconduct and abuse by recruiters, in contravention of the Optional Protocol. In the absence of a policy on implementation of the Optional Protocol, misconduct by recruiters often goes unchecked.

Heavy-handed recruitment tactics and misconduct by recruiters often render recruitment involuntary, and despite government and media reports documenting misconduct in recruitment of prospective enlistees under the age of 18, protections for students against abusive recruitment tactics remain weak. Recruiters threaten serious penalties to 17-year-old youth who have signed Deferred Entry contracts and subsequently changed their minds about enlisting, in some cases forcing these youth to report to basic training against their will. A provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act forces schools to open their doors to recruiters and provide the military with students’ information to undergo recruitment without parents’ informed consent. The U.S. military’s practice of targeting low-income youth and students of color for recruitment, in combination with exaggerated promises of financial rewards for enlistment, undermines the voluntariness of their enlistment.”

The ACLU recommends a number of actions be undertaken to limit recruiting practices including reforming the No Child Left Behind Act military recruitment provisions, ending Pentagon data mining projects targeting high school students, and making opt-out information more easily accessible. Additionally, the report calls for improved processes and policies aimed at curbing recruiter abuses.