By Lee Rowland, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project
Which of the following could land you a felony conviction in Arizona?
- Showing images of naked prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib;
- Linking to the iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of “Napalm Girl,” showing an unclothed Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack;
- Sharing a close-up photo of a woman’s breast with a breastfeeding support group;
- Waving a friend over to see a cute naked baby pic — like the one you see on this page.
Unfortunately, the answer is all of the above. That’s because Arizona recently passed a law that makes it a felony — and potentially a sex offense — to share any image of nudity or sexuality before you get consent from every person pictured.
Protecting personal privacy is, without doubt, a laudable goal. Indeed, the ACLU works tirelessly to protect your private data. But Arizona’s “nude photo law” is a seriously misguided attempt to achieve that goal. This new crime is broad and confusing. It applies to anyone who shares a nude image, not just to bad actors who intentionally invade another’s privacy. A prosecutor need not demonstrate that a person had an expectation of privacy in an image before charging you with a crime for sharing it. And the law applies equally to a private person’s hacked naked photo and a beautiful nude at a photography exhibit — because the law’s breadth encompasses truly newsworthy, artistic, and historical images.
As a result, the nude photo law creates bizarre and troubling burdens on speech fully protected by the First Amendment.
For proof that this law goes way too far and criminalizes innocent and valuable speech, you need look no further than the august group of bookstores, newspapers, photographers, publishers, and librarians that challenged the law together today (web page on case and complaint). Many of them belong to our stalwart First Amendment allies at the Media Coalition, whose members include the plaintiff associations of publishers, librarians and booksellers. Represented by the ACLU and Dentons US LLP, the plaintiffs just want to be able to offer books, art, news, and history without risking a criminal conviction in Arizona. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.
Proponents of the law indicated that it was intended to address the harms of “revenge porn” — a digital phenomenon typified by a scorned lover who maliciously posts private images of an ex online, often alongside her personal details. The harms of such conduct can be very real, and they predominately impact women. There are true horror stories about women who have suffered extreme humiliation and harassment, had intimate photos sent to relatives and coworkers, and lost job opportunities.
States can address these harms without treading on free speech, if and only if those laws are tailored to addressing malicious invasions of privacy. Arizona’s is not. And we’re not going to blindly trust that the government will apply this broad law responsibly, only against the “bad guys.” The photo above literally illustrates why.
One of the plaintiffs in our lawsuit, the Voice Media Group, publishes the newsweekly Phoenix New Times. The New Times published a series of images from a local art show by Arizona artist and Arizona State University Professor Betsy Schneider. One of the images from that art show is the great image above – documenting a month in Schneider’s infant son’s life.
Maricopa County publicly considered opening a police investigation into the New Times’ publications of these images, after police requested an investigation. A Phoenix city attorney told the press that if the photos were found to be illegal, “Everybody who picked up one those issues [of the New Times] could be prosecuted for possessing child pornography.” That’s what can happen when law enforcement officials wield problematic laws as broadly as they’re written.
The First Amendment just doesn’t permit that kind of carelessness. Laws meant to address real horrors need to do just that – without serving as Trojan Horses that erode our hallowed free speech rights.
So far, her worst fears of suffering without treatment have come true.
Every decision about her care goes from her doctors, all the way up the chain of command to the Secretary of Defense, who is notably not a doctor or a prison administrator. Even the Army's own providers admitted that her treatment is moving at a "glacial pace."
But the Constitution does not permit medical care to be provided sluggishly when it is urgently needed. And for Chelsea, the care is critical and the consequences for withholding it are dire.
Chelsea was first diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a serious medical condition, more than four years ago. When she arrived at the United States Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, over a year ago, the first thing she did was request treatment for gender dysphoria, including hormone therapy and permission to follow grooming standards for female prisoners, such as growing her hair.
Shortly thereafter she was again diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and a treatment plan was developed by Army medical providers in November of 2013. This seemed promising, and Chelsea was hopeful that the Army would follow the clear medical protocols for treating gender dysphoria.
Unfortunately, it soon became clear that Chelsea's medical treatment would be governed not by doctors but by Washington officials and be dictated not by medicine but by politics.
After a failed attempt to transfer Chelsea from the USDB into the federal Bureau of Prisons, the Associated Press reported on July 17, 2014, that Defense Secretary Hagel had approved "rudimentary" treatment for Chelsea's gender dysphoria. After the ACLU, the ACLU of Kansas, and Chelsea's civilian defense counsel David Coombs sent a letter to DOD and Army officials on August 11, 2014, demanding that she receive treatment, we learned just how "rudimentary" this treatment would be. On August 20, the Army provided Chelsea with female underwear and sports bras, but it continued to withhold hormone therapy and prohibit her from growing her hair and otherwise following the grooming standards for female prisoners.
Treating severe gender dysphoria with sports bras is like treating a gunshot wound with a Band-Aid. Such inadequate treatment sends the message to Chelsea and the rest of the world that the Army is not taking her health needs seriously.
People with gender dysphoria should not be forced to suffer without treatment because government officials don't take their medical needs seriously. As the American Medical Association recognizes, without treatment, gender dysphoria can lead to "distress, dysfunction, debilitating depression … suicidality and death."
Chelsea, like so many transgender women in prison, is experiencing the unrelenting anguish of being denied life-saving treatment. As Janet Mock wrote after Chelsea came out as transgender last year, "[w]e … all, whether we've been charged with a crime or not, whether we are popular or unpopular, whether we are loved or unloved, whether we are understood or stigmatized, deserve safe, quality, knowledgeable healthcare."
Today we are heading to court to demand that the government treat Chelsea Manning's serious medical condition and fulfill its obligation under the Constitution.
The days of government discrimination in providing healthcare for transgender people are numbered. It is the bravery of our clients like Chelsea, Andrea Fields, and Ophelia De'lonta who stand up to this injustice that will make the world safer and more just for the rest of us.
By Hugh Handeyside, Staff Attorney, ACLU National Security Project
A new report from the Government Accountability Office shows that the government is going easy on itself when it comes to aviation security screening, and in the process it is stretching the concept of watchlisting to the breaking point. Not only has the Transportation Security Administration expanded its use of blacklists for security screening to identify passengers who may be "unknown threats," but it also has compiled vast whitelists of individuals—including members of Congress, federal judges, and millions of Department of Defense personnel—who are automatically eligible for expedited screening at airports. These changes have made a broken watchlisting system even more arbitrary, unfair, and discriminatory.
We already know about those at the bottom of this aviation security caste system. We've long known that the TSA's Secure Flight program uses passenger information submitted with airline reservations to screen against watchlists maintained by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, including the No Fly List (which includes individuals who are barred from flying to, from, or over the United States) and the Selectee and Expanded Selectee Lists (which include individuals who are subjected to additional screening every time they fly).
Those watchlists, in turn, are compiled based on criteria that are so overbroad, ambiguous, and riddled with exceptions as to virtually guarantee that innocent individuals will end up blacklisted. Even information of questionable or doubtful reliability can support the "reasonable suspicion" standard that the FBI uses for placing people on the master watchlist. In fact, a single, uncorroborated piece of information—including a Facebook or Twitter post—can be enough to get you on the master watchlist and the Expanded Selectee List.
But the TSA isn't stopping there. Thanks to the GAO report, we now know that the TSA has modified the Secure Flight program so that it assigns passengers to one of three risk categories: high risk, low risk, or unknown risk. We've long been critical of this kind of passenger profiling—which the TSA has proposed in the past—because it inevitably leads to greater intrusion into individuals' private lives. And of course, it raises the question of what criteria and information the TSA uses to sort people into these categories.
The TSA is keeping those criteria secret, which is part of the problem. However, the GAO report states that the "high-risk" passengers aren't just those who appear to match a name on the FBI's No Fly, Selectee, or Expanded Selectee lists (as problematic as those lists may be). Now, the TSA is also using intelligence and law enforcement information, along with "risk-based targeting scenarios and assessments," to identify passengers who may be "unknown threats."
In other words, the FBI's flawed definition of someone who is a suspected threat to aviation security isn't relaxed enough for the TSA, so the TSA is creating its own blacklists of people who are hypothetical threats. Those people are also subjected to additional screening every time they fly. To make matters worse, another recently published GAO report indicates that the redress process for travelers who have been incorrectly caught up in the watchlisting system does not apply to these new TSA blacklists. So the TSA's "unknown threats" are truly without recourse.
Moreover, attempting to identify "unknown threats" in the traveling public exacerbates the already unacceptable risk that watchlists will be used for racial and religious profiling—something that leaked documents strongly suggest is already happening.
What about those at the top of this hierarchy? Who gets the privilege of being designated "low risk" and undergoing less onerous screening measures? TSA has established separate lists of entire populations of passengers who, by virtue of their status within the government, get expedited screening, including:
- Members of Congress
- Federal judges
- Department of Defense (DoD) military and civilian personnel (approximately 2.9 million people)
- Employees of national intelligence agencies (approximately 70,000 people)
- Homeland Security Advisory Council members and Homeland Security Advisors
These groups receive "Known Traveler Numbers" that they submit when making travel reservations and are then routed to the TSA Pre-Check line when they arrive at the airport. Others (those who have been neither whitelisted nor blacklisted) can apply for expedited screening through Pre-Check by undergoing a background check and submitting biographic information and fingerprints.
Superficially, it's easy to see the TSA's logic in focusing on these individuals for whitelisting. Many are involved in defending the country, and some have undergone background checks as part of their positions within the government. But that logic doesn't stand up under scrutiny. The problem with the TSA's approach goes to the heart of watchlisting in general: the government is increasingly relying on the unproven and flawed premise that it can predict if a person will commit a dangerous act in the future.
Just as the TSA is blacklisting people who it has decided are unknown, hypothetical threats, it is whitelisting people simply by virtue of their status as employees of the government. That status, however, says next to nothing about whether those individuals will engage in violence or pose a threat to security on any given day. Government employees and officers commit crimes, including crimes that affect national security. Because there is no reason to believe that a given DoD employee is less likely to threaten aviation security than, say, a teacher or an accredited journalist, whitelisting the DoD employee is arbitrary.
The more fundamental problem is how the logic applies to the rest of us. Instead of subjecting all travelers to the same procedures designed to detect threats to aviation, the government is essentially telling the American public that if we want the same privileges that the government has awarded itself, we'll have to convince the government that we won't commit dangerous acts in the future. That means turning over more and more information about ourselves: about who we are, what we do, and with whom we associate. By default, the TSA's system treats any reluctance to fork over that information as somehow suspicious, and it reinforces the emerging airline security caste system.
Similarly, insulating lawmakers, judges, and other decision-makers from the burdens and inconveniences of air travel does not serve the interests of democracy and fairness. When the government makes status-based decisions about aviation security, it pits Joe Congressman against Joe Sixpack, and unsurprisingly, the congressman comes out ahead.
Ultimately, when we start rewarding or punishing people because of who they are, as opposed to what they've done, we drift farther from the principles at the heart of our Constitution.
By Samia Hossain, William J. Brennan Fellow, ACLU Speech, Privacy, & Technology Project
"Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants." "Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman." "Captain Underpants and the Farty Fight for Free Speech." Okay fine, I made up the last one.
The silly titles of the "Captain Underpants" series lined our bookshelf at home, thanks to my younger brother. As his wiser and worldlier older sister, I wanted nothing to do with such absurdity. It seems some older people, however, have taken greater offense to Dav Pilkey's children's books, their paranoia almost more farcical than the titles themselves.
For the past two years, "Captain Underpants" was the book most frequently sought to be censored or banned, according to the American Library Association (ALA). Complaints have included "offensive language, unsuited for age group, [and] violence." Aside from potty jokes, the books contain no inappropriate language. The extent of violence includes a ping-pong serve-o-matic that shoots out eggs instead of balls, landing on everybody's head.
The ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 307 challenges to books in 2013, though it estimates that 70 to 80 percent of challenges are never reported. Other books on the top 10 most challenged list for the past year include popular reads like Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" and Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games."
Banned Books Week is an effort the national book community has organized since 1982 to draw attention to the problem of censorship in schools, bookstores, and libraries. The week celebrates so-deemed "harmful" books, which paternalistic forces have tried, sometimes successfully, to take off the shelves. More importantly, it raises awareness about how dangerous it is for our country to ban books in the first place.
Despite the protections of the First Amendment, our right to think, record, and spread our ideas has been consistently challenged since our country's founding.
Print and visual media have been censored many times to the detriment of our democracy – too often because the powerful feared that their comfortable status quo was under threat. Beginning in the 1830s until the end of the Civil War, for example, the U.S. postmaster general refused to carry abolitionist pamphlets to the South. During the Red Scare, filmmakers were jailed for alleged ties to communism. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration actually passed a law to end the production of Braille copies of Playboy — because heaven forbid the visually impaired be corrupted through their fingers.
Today, teachers and librarians remain under a barrage of paranoid adults attempting to remove material from school curricula and bookshelves. Other censorship advocates have turned to the Internet as their new frontier. And in an age of surveillance, many writers are increasingly engaging in self-censorship to protect themselves from a snooping government.
Since its inception in 1920, the ACLU has been at the forefront of the fight against censorship, winning many important victories for free speech along the way. Today we are defending reporters' right to observe and write about executions, fighting for students to exercise their First Amendment rights, and advising a government whistleblower who has spurred an unprecedented debate on the need for government reform.
Banned Books Week celebrates these and other efforts to defend our right to think and learn about whatever we want, no matter how unorthodox or unpopular. Whether about an underpants hero, a troubled youth, or a civil rights leader, information and our unfettered access to it is critical for free thought and the health of our democracy.
Find your local Banned Books Week event here, and keep on fighting the farty fight.
By Jennifer Dalven, Reproductive Freedom Project
Earlier this month, a judge sentenced a Pennsylvania mother to up to a year and a half in prison for helping her 16-year-old daughter end a pregnancy by purchasing abortion medication online. The mother, who has a low-paying job, ordered the medication online because there was no health center that provides abortions nearby, and she lacked health insurance to pay for an abortion at a hospital. She was sentenced after pleading guilty to performing an illegal abortion.
My heart goes out to this mother, who was doing the best she could to do right by her daughter. But what really keeps me up at night is the knowledge that because of the barrage of restrictions politicians are passing, more and more families are facing the same dilemma.
To be sure, I wish this mother and her daughter did not have to resort to ending her pregnancy without the help of medical professionals. I have no doubt that they wished there was another way too. But faced with the prospect of continuing the pregnancy and inducing the abortion on their own, the family did what thousands and thousands of women did before Roe. They took matters into their own hands. And they won't be the last family to do so.
It's no secret why this is happening. Across the country, extreme politicians have passed a rash of laws that single out doctors and health centers that provide abortions in a transparent effort to prevent a woman from getting a safe and legal abortion.
In Texas, these types of laws threaten to leave only seven clinics for the more than 5.5 million women of reproductive age in the state. Similar laws threaten to shutter the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, all but two of the clinics in Alabama, and force women in Wisconsin to wait up to 10 weeks to get an abortion. Louisiana and Oklahoma recently passed similar laws and we can expect to see even more states attempt to pass these laws in the next legislative session.
Pennsylvania, where the family lives, has a law that requires a woman seeking an abortion to make an extra, medically unnecessary trip to the clinic before she can get an abortion. Just last week in Missouri, state legislators overrode a governor's veto to institute a 3-day forced delay for abortion, even though Missouri voters clearly said they don't want this law. The mandatory delay applies no matter how long a woman has considered her decision before coming to the health center. Now, a woman will have to wait 72 hours for an abortion, after talking to a healthcare professional, no matter how firm she is in her decision.
Leading medical groups, like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, have opposed these laws. So why are politicians still passing them? To shame women and abortion providers and end access to safe, legal abortion.
Sadly this means this mother likely won't be last mother to face a difficult dilemma when she's only trying to help her daughter.
By James Esseks, Director, ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project
It used to be that the idea of gay people raising kids spooked lots of people, who thought of us only as pedophiles, not as parents. In fact, we lost a long series of court cases about the freedom to marry based on judges saying that straight folks were better for children, and therefore it made sense to exclude same-sex couples from marriage (huh?).
For instance, New York's highest court upheld the state's marriage law in 2006 by saying that "The Legislature could rationally believe that it is better, other things being equal, for children to grow up with both a mother and a father."
So it was refreshing to see a recent federal appeals court rule for gay people in one of the ACLU's freedom-to-marry cases by pointing to our kids. Noting that gay people have adopted a lot of children, the court made the common-sense observation that having those parents marry would be good for their kids.
This stunning change – from losing marriage cases because of judges' fears for the welfare of our children, to winning them because of judges' concerns for the welfare of those same kids – shows how deeply America's view of gay people has changed. The country has gone from thinking of gay people as deviant, overly sexualized beings, to recognizing us as regular folks and seeing our humanity. The shift is driving the massive change in public opinion about, and in the policy environment for, lesbians and gay men across the country.
The shift springs in large part from our increasing visibility: more and more people living openly as lesbians and gay men in all parts of their lives, more and more gay people raising children, and the growing prominence of the marriage issue in public discourse. As America learns more about gay people's lives, it sees us as neighbors, not perverts; as parents, not predators; and as families, not freaks. Now that the judiciary is starting to see us this way as well, I'm optimistic about more court victories for our equality.
It's promising that the Supreme Court is now considering petitions to review that recent marriage equality ruling – which involved the marriage laws of Indiana and Wisconsin – along with petitions in marriage cases from three other states: Oklahoma, Utah, and Virginia. The court could take up the issue as early as its conference on September 29th.
No matter which of these cases the Supreme Court chooses (and I think it's likely that it takes two), I'm convinced that the stories of our families and our children will be what moves the justices, and the country, toward our greatest legal victory yet.
By Chris Soghoian, Principal Technologist and Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
Apple made big news today by announcing that they are no longer able to extract data from iOS devices for law enforcement agencies. The company had, for several years, offered a popular service for police in which it would extract data from seized PIN- or password-protected devices (if you don't have a PIN or password, then the government doesn't need Apple's help to get your data). The message from Apple is clear: they don't like being in the surveillance business, and are doing everything they can to get out of it, while still offering usable products to the general public.
In the wake of the Snowden disclosures, many big tech companies have announced major security improvements, including encrypting the links between data centers, turning on default HTTPS encryption for website visitors, and encrypting the connections between email servers.
Such steps have made it more difficult for the government to spy on users without the companies' help. The use of HTTPS by Google, for example, means that Verizon can't help the NSA spy on its customers' web searches. But none of those changes impacted the companies' own ability to see data, and thus government agencies' ability to force the company to turn it over. Apple's new move is interesting and important because it's an example of a company saying they no longer want to be in the surveillance business–a business they likely never intended to be in and want to get out of as quickly as possible.
This was a big step for Apple, and one that likely required significant engineering work. What is so interesting and smart about this move is that rather than telling the government that they no longer want to help the government, they re-architected iOS so they are unable to help the government. Think of it as Apple playing a game of chicken, and the company has just thrown the steering wheel out of the window.
That's something that's going to be difficult for most tech companies to do, because so many of them have built their businesses around access to user data. If the companies can search and analyze that data, they can be forced to turn it over to the government. Apple's business model—selling expensive, luxury hardware to consumers—gives them the freedom to lock themselves out of access to their customers' data. Apple doesn't care what you store on your phone as long as you buy a new one every two years.
Although today's announcement is certainly big news, in many ways, it is far less significant than Apple's success in delivering end-to-end encrypted text, voice and video communications to the hundreds of millions of people using iMessage and FaceTime. To date, these apps have been advertised as free and easy ways for people to stay in touch with loved ones and family. However, the company could and should start advertising them as a much more secure alternative to regular telephone calls and text messages.
If Apple CEO Tim Cook's open letter and recent interview with Charlie Rose are any guide, the company thinks it can compete on privacy, particularly against Google. Perhaps prompted by Apple's announcement, Google revealed today that it, too, will be taking steps to better protect the data stored on Android devices. This is a great first step, and perhaps a sign that the big tech companies may be ready to compete on privacy. If Apple has indeed started a Silicon Valley privacy war, consumers will be the ones that ultimately come out on top.
By Jameel Jaffer, ACLU Deputy Legal Director and Director of ACLU Center for Democracy
This originally appeared in a Politico feature collecting responses to President Obama's recently announced military plan against ISIS.
It's strange to think of it now, but when Congress authorized President George W. Bush to use military force in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the authorization was meant to be a limited one. The Bush administration wanted a more sweeping resolution—one that would allow the use of military force against any group, anywhere, that the president believed was planning terrorist attacks against the United States. But some in Congress believed it would be reckless to give the executive branch such boundless authority, and the language that Congress ultimately settled on was narrower: It authorized the use of military force only against groups connected in some way to the 9/11 attacks.
As it's turned out, the language of the 2001 resolution hasn't actually been very limiting. Quite the opposite. The government's lawyers cited Congress's 2001 resolution to justify dragnet surveillance programs. They cited it to justify the imprisonment without charge or trial of an American citizen seized at Chicago's O'Hare airport. They cited it to justify the torture of prisoners in CIA black sites and the targeted killing of an American citizen in Yemen. They cited it to justify the use of military force in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia, and now they are citing it to justify a new war in Iraq and Syria. The use-of-force authorization has turned out to be as broad as the government's lawyers have been creative.
At least as troubling as what the executive branch is doing, though, is what Congress and the courts are not doing. In theory, Congress decides when the country goes to war, and against whom. In theory, the courts ensure that the president doesn't exceed the authority that Congress and the Constitution have given him. But in reality, Congress and the courts have abdicated their responsibilities. Unless that changes, the only real limits on the executive's authority to wage war will be the limits that the president and his lawyers decide, in their discretion, to recognize.
By Louise Melling, Director, Center of Liberty; Deputy Legal Director, ACLU
Do they think we're stupid?
It's the question I ask myself time and time again as I read about some of the newest restrictions on abortion. Like, for example, the law just enacted by the Missouri legislature, which forces a woman in Missouri to delay her abortion three days after she talks with a health care professional.
Supporters describe the forced wait as a "reflection period" – as if a woman hasn't already carefully considered her decision. They argue that a woman who resents the forced wait can simply "go across the river" to Illinois or Kansas, a trip that could take six hours, one way.
Sadly, this law isn't an outlier when it comes to treating a woman like she doesn't have enough sense to think for herself. And it's not alone in being designed to shame a woman out of having an abortion.
Politicians have passed laws that require abortion providers to give every women seeking an abortion a booklet produced by the state detailing the development of the fetus throughout pregnancy. It's not a question of giving the pamphlet to women who ask for more information. It has to go to all of us – without regard to how firm we are in our decision.
Another law mandates that a medical professional tell a woman that an abortion "kills a living human being." Still more laws require women to have ultrasounds and have the images described to us before we are allowed to have an abortion.
Laws that send a woman, and only ever a woman, home to consider her decision, no matter how confident she is of her choice, no matter how long she's thought about it, and no matter how many people she has consulted, tell a woman she can't be trusted to make a decision. That her yes – "Yes, I am sure I want an abortion" – can't mean yes because a woman can't be trusted to understand what an abortion is.
In a nutshell, these laws all say a woman can't be trusted to think. It's a notion I would like to think antiquated, but it remains grievously at play.
Why else send a woman home even when she's sure she wants to end a pregnancy? Why else force on her the booklet with the pictures? Why else require her to hear a description over her objection? To make her feel bad, of course. To replace her choice – of an abortion – with a choice that a politician finds preferable.
These laws send a deeply disheartening message to women. They send the message that we are selfish if we prioritize finishing school, advancing in our career, or exiting a hurtful relationship. If we prioritize caring for our existing children in the way we dreamed. They tell us that, despite progress, the old-fashioned messaging that a good woman puts motherhood first is still alive and well.
They shame the nearly one in three women who will have had an abortion by the time she turns 45. Those women are our mothers, daughters and sisters. We don't think they're stupid, do we? Apparently, for all too many lawmakers, the answer to that question is a resounding yes.
Is the United States Constitution as important as the Declaration of Independence?
Every Fourth of July, we celebrate our founders' decision to form a country independent of Great Britain. But we don't have any equivalent celebration of the republic they actually founded – or the document that made us the United States of America.
In 2004, Congress took a first step to recognizing the importance of the Constitution, enacting a law declaring September 17 – which is the anniversary of the U.S. Constitutional Convention's adoption of our Constitution in 1787 – to be Constitution Day. But this legislation did not create a federal holiday, which would have meant a day off from school or work. Instead, it made September 17 a special day in school, requiring all schools that accept federal funding to present educational programs about the Constitution. In 2011, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation taking the next step by extending the day of observance to a week – September 17-23.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Constitution Day – a good time to take the final and long overdue step and really show our commitment to our government's founding document by making September 17th a real federal holiday.
You can help by signing and promoting our petition on the whitehouse.gov website. We need 100,000 signatures, which will take a lot of organization. Students who join this campaign will have to do their best impressions of congressional whips, drumming up support and building coalitions of parents, teachers, and other adults to cast a vote for the petition.
Were you about to say: "But how can schools teach kids about the Constitution if they're closed?"
Happily, President Obama's decision to expand Constitution Day through the week leaves four additional days for schools to educate the next generation of civil libertarians about the importance of the Constitution. For two years now, the ACLU has been helping teachers and parents with their efforts to help students appreciate the Constitution by creating "Constitution Day Brought to You by the ACLU." Our website offers interactive educational program aimed primarily at students in grades 5-9 and providing teachers with model lesson plans that won't put their students to sleep.
For teacher resources and games for Constitution Day, click here.
The Supreme Court once declared in our historic Tinker case that "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Children should learn about and celebrate the Constitution, a document so powerful that it ensures their rights, even in the classroom.
But this shouldn't only happen in school. And honoring the Constitution should not only be an activity for students. If students, and hopefully many adults as well, are given a day off to devote to contemplating and discussing the Constitution, education and recommitment to our fundamental values can also spread outside the schoolhouse gate.
Supporting the petition to start an important new American holiday is one small way that anyone can show his or her respect for the Constitution. And after all, the Constitution has already shown a great deal of respect for "We, the People" by making us the true government of the United States of America.
Celebrate the Constitution and experience democracy in action by signing now.