March/April 2015 - an ACLU of Rhode Island Newsletter

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March/April 2015 Newsletter

Volume: XXI, Issue Number: 2

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Newsletter Contents

Girls Just Wanna Darn Socks?

Despite decades of progress toward gender equality, Rhode Island elementary schools are actively supporting gender-exclusive student events that perpetuate blatant gender stereotypes. That’s the finding of a new ACLU of Rhode Island report that surveyed 40 elementary schools in 16 school districts about the types of extracurricular events promoted with school resources.

The report, “Girls Just Wanna Darn Socks,” found that Rhode Island girls are routinely sent to dances and fed the same tired stereotype that they must look pretty and be social, while boys are given wide-ranging and purportedly male-friendly activities like magic and science shows and physical activities – their own and others – like PawSox games and trampoline parks. In fact, the ACLU found that during the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years, 80% of  “girls’ events” at the 40 elementary schools studied were dances. The few other events held for girls were generally another gender-stereotyped event, like a pajama party, yoga night, or blanket-sewing event.

Although these extracurricular activities are hosted by PTAs and PTOs, the ACLU’s investigation found that the schools regularly promote these events in various ways, through posting on school websites, use of school listservs, and by otherwise offering the parent-teacher groups special access to school resources. The use of these school resources to support such stereotypical and discriminatory events undermines Title IX, the landmark anti-discrimination law that has helped break down the barriers between girls’ and boys’ education over the past four decades.

Great progress has been made by women in education in the years since Title IX’s passage, but girls and women continue to be underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. By supporting these gender-exclusive events, Rhode Island’s schools, however unintentionally, support the sort of stereotyping that helped discourage girls from those fields for so long

Such gender-segregated programming – based on gender stereotypes about the talents, capacities and preferences of children – is harmful to boys and girls alike, and fails in any meaningful way to provide “reasonably comparable” experiences.

The ACLU has called on school equal opportunity officers to halt school support of these types of discriminatory extracurricular events, and has also asked the state Department of Education to intervene by providing guidance to school districts on the illegal nature of their promotion of such gender-discriminatory activities. The ACLU will be monitoring the school districts in the coming school year, and plans to take legal action if the problem is not addressed.


From the Desk of the Executive Director

If you want to see the dangers of over-criminalization gone awry, you need look no further than the Attorney General’s “computer crimes” legislative package.

Last year, he convinced legislators to pass a bill that subjects to family court jurisdiction thousands of teens who “sext.” It’s a bad thing to do, but do we really want the police involved every time a 12-year-old sends a nude photo of himself to a friend?

This year, another package of AG computer bills would make thousands more of us – adults and children alike – criminals and chill the exercise of speech.

One bill would make it a crime to post online critical writings that, however unintended, prompt third parties to harass individuals. The potentially chilling effect this could have on free speech on the Internet is hard to overstate.

A second bill would turn spouses who surreptitiously examine their partners’ emails into felons. A third would make it a crime to disseminate some of the graphic photos released from Abu Ghraib or for a teen to send a friend a “leaked” nude photo of a celebrity.

The ACLU is fighting these proposals, and with your help, we hope to defeat them.

-- Steven Brown


ACLU Sues Drug Enforcement Administration For Public Records Journalist Requested 3 Years Ago

The ACLU of Rhode Island has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit on behalf of local journalist and former Providence Phoenix editor Philip Eil, who has been stymied for more than three years in his effort to obtain access to thousands of pages of public evidence from a major prescription drug-dealing trial.

Mr. Eil is writing a book about Dr. Paul Volkman, an Ohio physician convicted of prescribing medications that caused the overdose deaths of four patients. After Dr. Volkman’s trial, Mr. Eil requested access to the trial evidence from the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. This request was denied, as were Mr. Eil’s subsequent requests to the Ohio U.S. Attorney’s office, the U.S. District Court judge who presided over the case, and the clerk of the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

On February 1, 2012, Eil filed a FOIA request with the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, which eventually transferred the request to the DEA nine months later. The DEA still has not completely fulfilled the request, despite numerous efforts by Eil to expedite a response. Pending with the DEA for more than 800 days, Eil’s request is eight months older than what the federal government-operated website, FOIA.gov, reports as the agency’s longest pending request.

In addition to the time it has taken to process the request, the DEA has withheld 87 percent of the 12,724 pages it has thus far processed for Eil’s FOIA request, and stripped most of the substantive information from the remaining 1,600 pages it has “released.” For example, as the lawsuit notes, one of the nine installments of releases to Eil included “a 133-page slide show where the substance from nearly every single slide is redacted.”  In another one of the “partial releases” of information, the DEA withheld 1,225 of 1,232 pages it processed.

“You can’t have a true democracy without a transparent court system, and this case represents an egregious failure of judicial transparency,” Mr. Eil said. “The right to a public trial is a basic tenet of our society, and it’s scary to think that any trial in the United States, especially one of this magnitude, would be retroactively sealed off from public view, as this case has.”

The lawsuit against the DEA seeks a court order to release the documents, a declaration that the DEA has wrongfully withheld and redacted documents, and an award of attorney fees.


In-Depth Investigation Of Pawtucket Police Department Traffic Stop Practices Needed

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island is urging the Pawtucket Police Department to conduct an in-depth examination of some of its policies and procedures in light of disturbing allegations of racism among its officers described in a recent news article in the Valley Breeze.

While the ACLU is pleased that an internal investigation has been launched into the allegations of officers using racially inappropriate language, data collected on the Pawtucket Police Department’s traffic stops since 2001 suggest racial discrimination may have a deeper impact on the department’s practices.

In a letter to Pawtucket city officials, ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown noted that in each of three studies of data on Rhode Island police departments’ motor vehicle stops and searches, the Pawtucket Police Department has ranked among the worst in terms of searching racial minorities. This very troubling pattern warrants a more thorough public investigation.

Brown called on the city to examine all available statistical information to determine the cause of the racial disparities in traffic stops, examine police traffic stop policies and procedures that may be responsible for these disparities, continue to collect and analyze traffic stop data, and draft a concrete plan of action to address the inequities documented by the traffic stop statistics.

Brown stated: “If some police officers are apt to offhandedly use derogatory language against racial minorities, one should be even more concerned about the actions they may be taking against them…. This cannot and should not be swept under the rug as merely a problem of a few police officers occasionally speaking in inappropriate ways.”


Motel 6 Guest List Sharing Policy Is An Invasion Of Privacy

The ACLU of Rhode Island has blasted an agreement reached between Warwick police and a local Motel 6 to share the motel’s daily guest list of patrons, and to do so without notifying patrons. The agreement was prompted by a series of disturbances and arrests that had taken place at the motel over a period of time. In criticizing the arrangement, the ACLU issued the following statement:

“When visitors go to a hotel for the night, they expect to be treated like guests, not potential criminals. Yet the blanket agreement between the Warwick police and the motel – sharing the guest list of all of its patrons on a daily basis – is hardly the sort of ‘hospitality’ one anticipates from such an establishment. A family on vacation should not be fearful that police may come knocking on the door in the middle of the night, courtesy of the motel, because Dad has an outstanding parking ticket he never paid.

“Although Motel 6’s national policy claims to ‘recognize the importance’ of protecting the privacy of guest information, this agreement makes a mockery of that pretense. It adds insult to injury that the motel does not even plan to make customers aware that it is sharing information with the police. Motel officials should feel some obligation to let patrons know that a courtesy police check comes with the mint on the pillow.

“There are many ways to deal with illegal activities at the motel without engaging in such a wholesale invasion of patrons’ privacy. We are deeply concerned about the precedent this agreement sets, for it can only embolden police to press for similar policies from other establishments. The ACLU urges that this sharing policy be immediately rescinded. At the very least, the motel should fess up to its customers as to exactly what it is doing so they can make an informed choice as to whether this is the hospitality they were looking for. When Motel 6 says in its ads that they’ll ‘leave the light on for you,’ most people probably don’t realize they’re talking about the light of a police siren.”


Advocates Discuss Women’s Rights In Rhode Island

Just as Women’s History Month came to a close, the ACLU of Rhode Island invited fellow advocates for women’s rights and gender equality to discuss the many hurdles women still face today and what they are doing to address these inequalities.

The wide-ranging panel discussion featured Shandi Hanna, president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women; former state Senator Rhoda Perry; Jamie Rhodes, government of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England; and Jenn Steinfeld, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. ACLU board member Cherie Cruz moderated the discussion.

The discussion focused on the need for protections for pregnant and nursing workers against discrimination in the workplace, the practice of charging women more for health insurance solely because they are women, attempts to restrict access to abortion services here and across the country, and how women, especially women of color, continue to receive unequal pay.

The participating organizations, along with the ACLU, are currently lobbying this year’s General Assembly to pass legislation banning pregnancy discrimination and gender rating in health insurance.


The 2015 Legislative Session: Legislation Threatening Civil Liberties

The legislative session is at its halfway point, but if history tells us anything it’s that our greatest civil liberties battles have yet to make themselves known. In our last issue, we discussed some of the positive civil liberties-related legislation we’re supporting this year. Here is just a tiny sample of the many bills on the other side of the spectrum – the bills that threaten your liberties in 2015 and beyond. For more on these bills and many others being considered this year, visit our Legislation page

Parole for Murder (H 5158, S 0132)
Despite lacking any evidence that increased sentences decrease recidivism, legislation requiring those convicted of murder to serve more of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole has already passed the Senate. Such legislation ties the hands of judges and reduces incentives for prisoners to engage in rehabilitative services, at a cost of more than $40,000 per inmate per year.

Cyberstalking/Cyberharassment (H 5467, S 0565)
Under current law, an individual commits cyberstalking and cyberharrassment only if they have committed a series of acts online specifically intended to harass and individual or their family. Under legislation proposed by the Attorney General’s office, one single act online that is then used by others to justify would be criminal, holding individuals accountable for the actions of others even if they meant no harm with their original post or were unaware of the harassment that subsequently took place. As such, the legislation raises serious First Amendment concerns and would likely have a chilling effect on any communication via the Internet.

Unauthorized Computer Access (H 5458, S 0567)
Part of a package of legislation from the Attorney General’s office aimed at computer crimes is a broadly worded bill addressing unauthorized computer access. The breadth of the language treats whistleblowers and overzealous spouses the same as malicious hackers, resulting in felony penalties and up to five years in prison. Similar broad language appearing in federal law has created a number of interpretation issues in federal court.

“Revenge Porn” (H 5770, S 0630)
The General Assembly is once again attempting to pass legislation that would make the simple sharing online of certain images a crime. Under the legislation, the simple retweeting or reposting online of a sexually explicit image without the direct consent of the person in the image would be a crime – even if the picture was initially taken and shared consensually. The Senate has already approved the bill; similar legislation also passed the Senate last year, but failed to receive a House vote.

Highway Interference (H 5192, H 5193, S 0129)
Following a series of recent protests, the General Assembly is considering creating a new crime of obstructing traffic or obstructing a freeway. Individuals who willfully block traffic can already be arrested and charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct; the creation of new crimes solely targeted at individuals engaging in political speech has troubling First Amendment implications. Imposing felony penalties against individuals who block traffic would saddle them with a lifetime of penalties far exceeding the severity of their behavior; but legislation imposing misdemeanor penalties is no less troubling or unnecessary.

Abortion Insurance Coverage (H 5784, S 0573)
The legislature is considering a number of abortion bills, including one requiring the state’s health exchange to offer health benefit plans that do not include abortion coverage. Such legislation limits reproductive freedom by permitting employers to select insurance plans without abortion coverage, denying their employees access to the full range of reproductive care services. Similar plans regarding other beliefs – such as denying insurance coverage of blood transfusions – are not currently required by law.

Marijuana Cultivation Centers (S 0791)
The medical marijuana program may take a hit if legislation is passed prohibiting caregivers from growing marijuana themselves and instead requiring all medical marijuana growing to occur in compassion centers and cultivation centers. Such legislation eliminates access to caregivers for those patients who cannot afford compassion centers, or who cannot travel far from their homes and need closer providers.

Background Checks (Various)
The General Assembly is continuing a recent trend of undermining the state’s Ban the Box legislation and other efforts at facilitating the employment of individuals with criminal records by considering a new series of laws requiring background checks for applicants for a wide range of jobs. Although employment is a key factor in reducing recidivism, these bills increasingly disqualify individuals from consideration for long-past offense – including drug offenses and minor offenses like shoplifting – unrelated to the positions they seek.

DUI Penalties (S 0247)
The General Assembly is considering doubling the penalties for DUI offenses involving death or serious physical injury. The legislation requires a minimum of five and maximum of thirty years for those involved in a DUI with a resulting death, forcing judges to impose long sentences against even those individuals they feel would not benefit from such a sentence. Despite the lack of any evidence that increased sentences would lead to an increase in public safety, the bill also extends the maximum sentence for DUI with injury from ten to twenty years.

Sex Offender Residency (H 6025, S 0754)
Even as those who treat sex offenders warn against the use of residence restrictions, the General Assembly is weighing tripling the distance from schools sex offenders may live. Residency restrictions provide no increased public safety – the vast majority of sex offenders are known to their victims well before they offend. Instead, such restrictions lead to homelessness for offenders, leaving them unable to maintain the stability necessary to avoid reoffending while also sending them underground and outside the view of law enforcement and treatment officials.


ACLU Trains Civil Liberties Advocates

When civil liberties face threats like those described above, the ACLU needs dedicated volunteers to join the fight to protect the rights of all Rhode Islanders.

In March, the ACLU of RI held an advocate training day to teach members of the community how to effectively lobby for and against bills being considered by the General Assembly. Attendees learned how to follow legislation as it progresses through the General Assembly, contact lawmakers, and testify before committees. (Read our Top 10 Tips here)

If you’d like to help us at the State House, visit our volunteer page or email policy@riaclu.org.


News Briefs

  • The ACLU of Rhode Island has called for lifting of the “gag order” issued for the settlement discussions in the state pension case now that a settlement agreement has been announced. The ACLU first called for an end to the broadly written gag order once the plaintiffs began voting on a settlement agreement. At that time, the ACLU noted that the gag order was issued to protect the confidentiality of the mediation process, and that it was “counter-productive and unduly intrusive on basic First Amendment values to allow it to remain in effect” with that task completed. The gag order has been amended, but allows parties to make statements only about their “positions and views.” ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said: “The right to freely discuss court actions – particularly in a case like this with such major public ramifications – provides legitimacy to the judicial process and is essential to an open society relying on the rule of law.”
  • Susan Herman, president of the national office of the ACLU, joined local officials and community members at the University of Rhode Island Feinstein Providence Campus in April for a discussion of urban policing in Rhode Island and across the country. Ms. Herman, a Brooklyn Law School professor, discussed the role of race in police-community relations, evolving police culture, the militarization of police departments, the need to address racial profiling, and the importance of balancing individual freedoms and privacy with public safety needs. URI sociology professor Leo Carroll, Roger Williams University professor of criminal justice Yolanda M. Leott, and Providence Commissioner of Public Safety Steven Paré also participated in the panel discussion and lively Q&A.
  • The ACLU is joining with a number of other civil rights and student advocacy groups to press school districts against using a new standardized test, known as PARCC, in any punitive manner against students. Although the test is only being administered for the first time this spring, Department of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has advised school districts they may use the results of the test scores as part of students’ grades as early as the next school year, and that they may use the results to deny students a high school diploma beginning with the Class of 2017. Only months earlier, the Commissioner had recommended waiting until 2020 before using PARCC in a high stakes fashion in order to ensure that students and parents had sufficient notice, and to give school districts adequate time to put the instructional and other supports in place that would give every student a fair chance to pass the PARCC.

ACLU Raises Concerns Over East Providence Hiring Practices

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has raised deep concerns about the hiring practices of the City of East Providence and the East Providence School Department’s failure to address allegations of discrimination against minority employees and applicants.

In a March 6 letter to city and school officials, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown noted that despite agreeing to change hiring practices in support of Affirmative Action goals as part of a 1994 settlement, the school department and City appear to be in violation of these commitments and are disregarding their legal obligation to implement non-discriminatory hiring practices.

Brown states in the letter: “We believe the community deserves an explanation for this current state of affairs; an accounting of why the makeup of the Department staff is so devoid of minority representation; reasons why the City and the Department have failed to abide by the critical affirmative action requirements; and a summary of the specific and concrete steps the Department has taken, is taking, and will be taking to address this critical issue. Members of the minority community in your city are, we believe, entitled to no less.”

The full letter, which outlines the City and School Department's commitments and their failures to meet them, is available here.


From The Blog: Our Privacy Rights Are Up In The Air

The ACLU of Rhode Island takes on myriad issues that have serious civil liberties implications for all Rhode Islanders. Through its new blog, the ACLU aims to provide more insight into our work and offer a civil liberties perspective on current issues facing the state. Visit www.riaclu.org/blog to read our first few posts and be sure to check back often. Below is an excerpt from a recent blog post, “Our Privacy Rights Are Up In The Air,” by policy associate Hillary Davis:

By all accounts, drones are here to stay.

There are drone film festivals, wedding photographer drones, drones that may soon be able to deliver your Amazon purchases, and even a Rhode Island Fire Drone. Yet, as drone hobbyists and business alike find new and innovative ways to use this technology, Rhode Island's laws lag woefully behind in understanding that law enforcement has an equal or larger interest in using drone technology.

Regardless of one's opinions on drones, it's easy to understand the incentives in place for law enforcement use of drones. In the few years since drones first hit the public lexicon, they have become cheaper, with longer battery life and a wide range of potential features. Even a basic hobby drone can carry a camera; professional-level drones can carry a camera with a high enough resolution to zoom in from very far away. Infrared cameras, night-vision, and other significant surveillance tools may also be equipped on a drone, flown far enough away that the subject may never know they are being observed.

As a result, the potential for legitimate use of drones is tremendous, but so too are the potentials for misuse. Yet while fourteen states have recognized these risks and put in place laws to protect their residents, Rhode Island has over the past three years neglected to pass legislation requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant for drone use.

Instead, many posit that the Fourth Amendment alone should be sufficient to protect Rhode Islanders from intrusions of privacy, and that any other questions about privacy should be handled by the courts. That the courts can only determine if a person’s rights have already been violated is of little concern to these individuals but, as an organization that fights in the courts on a regular basis to protect Fourth Amendment rights, it’s of great concern to the ACLU.

Passage by the Rhode Island General Assembly of strong legislation restricting law enforcement’s use of drones is critical to protecting Rhode Islanders’ privacy before a violation occurs, and before a protracted, expensive court case is necessary to recognize what we already know: law enforcement should obtain a warrant prior to drone use, except in specific emergency circumstances.

There are a number of other privacy concerns that come with drones – from their use by corporations to the extent to which your neighbor can use a drone to film you – and those also need to be evaluated in time. But neither of those options carry the serious implications for your privacy as law enforcement’s use of drones does. Corporations and your neighbor cannot put you in jail; law enforcement can. Fourteen states have seen fit to clarify exactly when and how law enforcement can use a drone; Rhode Island should not be the last to protect our Fourth Amendment Rights.


Upcoming Events

Screening of Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin

Thursday, May 21, 2015 at 6 p.m.

Mixed Magic Theatre
560 Mineral Spring Ave., Pawtucket, RI 02904

The ACLU of RI and the RI Black Heritage Society are co-sponsoring the screening of the documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. The film focuses on the career of Bayard Rustin, a major, if largely forgotten, activist and organizer of the civil rights movement who was forced to the background because of his sexual orientation. Bennett Singer, the documentarian, will lead a discussion after the film. The screening is free and open to the public. The lead sponsor is the Lifelong Learning Collaborative.

More Than Marriage: LGBT Issues In Rhode Island

Thursday, May 28, 2015 at 6 p.m.

Warwick Public Library
600 Sandy Lane, Warwick, RI 02889

All Rhode Islanders now have the freedom to marry, but LGBT individuals still face many serious challenges to their rights. Join the ACLU of Rhode Island, YouthPride, and other local advocates for a discussion on efforts to protect the rights of transgender individuals, prevent discrimination in the classroom, and address other disparities. This event is free and open to all.