An ACLU Thanksgiving

Today, as Americans reflect on the many things we have to be thankful for, I am reminded of how thankful I am to live in a country with the following guarantees:

Amendment 1
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 2
A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment 3
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment 4
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment 5
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb, nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.

Amendment 6
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed; which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Amendment 7
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment 8
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment 9
The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment 10
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Amendment 13
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Amendment 14
… No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws …

Amendment 15
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude …

Amendment 19
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

I am also thankful for the people who recognize that it is these things that make our country what it is, and that to give them up for any reason diminishes it and us. It is because of the time, talent, and resources of these people that the ACLU is able to defend the freedoms we cherish.

Becca in Harrisburg

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Happy Darwin!

It was 150 years ago today that a book was published that revolutionized how we view the world. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, published Nov. 24, 1859, provided an explanation for all of life’s awesome diversity.

One of the common misconceptions about the book, one often touted by creationists, was the Darwin “invented” evolution. Actually, the concept of evolving processes had been put forth long before. Rather, in Origin, Darwin outlined, in painstakingly detailed Victorian language, a mechanism by which it occurred: Natural selection. He explained how individual creatures with new traits best suited to their environment are better able to survive and reproduce offspring. And how those new traits can become dominant in a population, thereby steering evolution.

For the record, one of the reasons intelligent design fell so flat on its face four years ago during the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, was Lehigh University biochemistry professor Michael Behe was unable to provide a similar mechanism for the concept, other than that “we can infer design by the working arrangement of parts.”

Darwin showed how all the parts fit together. However, as Darwin understood, Origin would also challenge religious notions. For more on the creationist reactions to Origins, I have an article today on Religion Dispatches.

And the New York Times has a really cool article today written by Sean Carroll about Darwin’s passion for snails and what scientists have learned about the creatures in the past 150 years.

To celebrate this auspicious anniversary, earlier this month the Southcentral Chapter of the PA-ACLU, of which I’m a board member, co-sponsored a Concert for Darwin.

It was a wonderful evening. Held at the amazing Midtown Scholar book store, it featured alt-American music by Jefferson Pepper and Varmints in Heaven (Full-disclosure: Jefferson also goes by the name of “Husband.”), a terrific talk by Ken Miller, the plaintiff’s lead science expert in Kitzmiller, and hip-hop performer Baba Brinkman, whose Rap Guide to Evolution absolutely delighted a somewhat, at first, skeptical audience.

Most amazingly, it brought together a group of people who love science and music, and who believe that curiosity and passion about how the world works trumps a close-minded worldview any day.

One of the things that most pleased me was the remarks afterward of a former colleague: “It felt really good to be in a room filled with like-minded people.”

Also, at the concert, Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, opened with a reading from the final page of Origin. If you get a chance today, crack open Origin and read that last page. It’s a beautiful stirring summary of this Earth’s diversity and how we are all connected to one another.

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank…”

Lauri in York

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Juvenile Injustice

Meet Qu’eed Batts. Batts was a Blood street gang member in 2006 when he was arrested, tried as an adult, and convicted of committing murder when he was just 14.

Just over a month ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to Batts’ case on the juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) issue. At 17 he has been granted a petition to appeal, but his case won’t be seen until after the US Supreme Court decides on two Florida JLWOP cases, which take up the issue of whether or not sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Batts’ case is just one of many juvenile cases that make juvenile justice one of the hottest topics in civil liberties, which is why the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter’s Public Education Committee devoted an entire series to bringing these issues to the community.

The series, which began on September 10th with a discussion on the problem of juvenile life sentencing was led by Martha Conley, ACLU of PA Greater Pittsburgh board member, chair of the Pittsburgh chapter of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and associate producer of the film Lost in the Hype.

Pennsylvania has convicted more JLWOP than any other state in the US. Currently, PA host 444 prisoners who are serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. Of the 2,574 serving in 39 states throughout the US, 60% were first time offenders, according to a 2005 study by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Two of the main reasons PA disproportionately houses more JLWOP inmates are:

  1. A 1995 law that requires juveniles charged of serious crimes to bypass the juvenile courts and first be seen in adult courts. Reasoning being: “adult crimes deserve adult time”; however a growing body of medical research shows incomplete brain development, especially in the areas controlling impulse, planning, judgment, and foresight of consequences, in youth and young adults up to age 21.
  2. Unlike other states, only the governor may grant clemency to anyone with the life without parole sentence, including children.

As for the public’s view, a February 2007 National Counsel on Crime and Delinquency study found that 89% of respondents believed rehabilitation services and treatment can prevent youth who have committed crimes from committing future crime. For more information regarding future Greater Pittsburgh Chapter discussion series, visit

More information on juvenile life sentencing can be found here or here.

Kristine in Pittsburgh

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Alabama In the Middle?

This past weekend, about sixty people braved less-than-beautiful weather to rally for LGBT rights in Lancaster. One of them was ACLU of Pennsylvania Legislative Director Andy Hoover, a.k.a. “Andy in Harrisburg.” See Andy’s remarks (although not much of his face) below.

For more information about the ACLU’s legislative efforts, go here.
For more about our work on LGBT civil rights, go here.
To contact your legislators about HB 300, go here.

And don’t count central Pennsylvania out just yet!

Becca in Harrisburg

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A quick note on blog maintenance

Our readers may notice that a few comments have been deleted, each leaving behind a little note, “This post has been removed by a blog administrator.” Being that we’re the ACLU, I wanted to clarify that the only comments we delete are spam – meaning they are clearly unrelated the conversation and posted solely to advertise other sites or products. Typically these comments say something like “Hey, great blog and very interesting” followed by two or more links to unrelated topics like “Best Elliptical Trainer” or “Online Casino” or something.

Any post that is not spam will be left unmodified. Those of us who work on Speaking Freely discussed this recently, and there was a unanimous agreement that free speech takes precedence. We will not delete or edit comments for being oppositional, wrong-headed, offensive, or tangential. If there’s any doubt whether a post is spam or not, we’ll leave it be. Rest assured that anything you see deleted was of no relevance or interest – unless you’re in the market for herbal marital aids.

That is all.

Chris in Philly

Shocking Fact: Chain Emails Are Not Always True

You may be as shocked – shocked! – as I was to learn this: Some people say things about the ACLU that aren’t true.

To wit, a chain email that first circulated years ago saying that the ACLU had filed suit to have all cross-shaped military headstones removed has apparently been revived, if the calls our offices have gotten inquiring about it are any indication.

Below is an excerpt from the national ACLU’s Blog of Rights stating the facts about these allegations. Click here to read the entire post.

The ACLU and Religion: Don’t Believe Everything You Read On the Internet

A malicious and factually inaccurate e-mail accusing the ACLU of not standing solidly on the side of religious liberty – an e-mail that was first circulated six years ago – has once again reared its ugly head and popped up in the e-mail inboxes of people across the country. In an effort to set the record straight, below are two myths the e-mail passes off as truth, followed by the facts which effectively debunk the e-mail’s claims.

MYTH: The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to have all cross-shaped headstones removed from federal cemeteries.

FACT: The ACLU has never once advocated for or initiated any litigation in favor of removing cross-shaped headstones from federal cemeteries. In fact, as the website makes clear, there are no cross-shaped headstones at VA national cemeteries. The headstones and markers the government issues are rectangular.

What the ACLU did do in 2006 was file a lawsuit seeking to protect the right of veterans and their families to choose religious symbols to engrave on headstones in federal cemeteries. The result of this litigation was not the forced removal of any crosses, but rather an expansion of the official government list of religious symbols allowed on headstones by the National Cemeteries Administration of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to include the Wiccan pentacle.

Becca in Harrisburg

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Sentenced to Hard Labor

The growing population of women in prisons and jails brings with it special challenges, particularly if the woman is pregnant. Like — what happens when she goes into labor? Is she a flight risk? Is this the moment she’s been waiting for – an opportunity to escape? Can you imagine being in active labor and trying to outrun a prison guard?

This seems to be the thinking of many in the correctional system. In Pennsylvania and 39 other states, correctional officers are allowed to shackle pregnant inmates on the way to the hospital, as well as during labor and delivery. Officials justify this practice by saying they need to prevent inmates from escaping. However, there is no record anywhere of an escape attempt by a woman in labor. And guess what? Among states that have banned the practice, there have been no escape attempts.

In addition to being an unnecessary security precaution, shackling is known to be risky for the health of women and their unborn children. The use of physical restraints can severely restrict women’s ability to move and change positions during labor. More importantly, shackles can interfere with medical staff’s ability to provide appropriate care or act quickly in emergency situations. Organizations including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Public Health Association, and the American Correctional Association support policies that ban or restrict the use of shackles and other restraints during labor and delivery.

Several states and the federal government have recognized the risks associated with shackling and have implemented new policies that restrict the use of these restraints. Texas, New York, New Mexico, Vermont, Illinois, and California have all passed legislation prohibiting the use of shackles on pregnant inmates, while the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Marshall Service, and the states of Florida, Wyoming, Washington, Rhode Island, and Connecticut have implemented administrative policies restricting the use of shackles and other restraints on pregnant inmates during labor and delivery.

Advocates in Pennsylvania are trying to push the state in this direction. State Senator Daylin Leach recently introduced the Health Birth for Incarcerated Women Act (Senate Bill 1074). It would ban the use of shackles during labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery except for in extreme circumstances. This bill would also require correctional facilities to keep written records and justification for the use of restraints. This legislation could also open the door to establishing more comprehensive health services for incarcerated women who are pregnant.

To learn more, listen to Senator Leach and Kathleen Creamer of Community Legal Services discuss the bill on the senator’s podcast or read the full text of the bill.

Jenny in Philadelphia

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Protesters’ Rights: The Song

It seems that a few people were moved enough by the protesters’ rights palm cards we distributed in Pittsburgh during the G20 Summit to put them to music. Please feel free to send us any other creative renderings of our literature you might have – no reason to be boring when educating people about their rights!

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