Let’s Assume the Kids (and Ahmed) Are Alright, Not Criminals

Last Sunday night in Irving, Texas, a 14-year-old boy named Ahmed Mohamed got bored. But instead of firing up his X-Box for a few rounds of Counterstrike or checking up on his fantasy football progress, Ahmed decided to build a digital clock from scratch. He likes to tinker.

By now you’ve probably heard what happened next: When Ahmed took his masterpiece to school the next day to impress his teachers, the clock was confiscated and Ahmed was pulled out of class. He was interrogated by five different police officers. His belongings were searched. He was threatened with expulsion. He was accused over and over and over again of wanting to build a bomb, or wanting people to think he’d built a bomb. He repeatedly requested to contact his parents, and those requests were denied.

Instead, law enforcement agents handcuffed the frightened high school freshman wearing a NASA t-shirt, frog-marched him out of school, and remanded him to a juvenile detention center where they snapped mug shots and took his fingerprints. The school suspended Ahmed for three days, and until the story went viral, police were considering charges.

How could this have happened?

The first and most obvious answer is racism and Islamophobia. Ahmed is Muslim, and Irving has something of a checkered history with the Muslim community. In 2012, the Irving Independent School District commissioned a 72-page report to determine if its curriculum was too pro-Islam. (It wasn’t.) In a response to a local mosque setting up a mediation panel for its worshippers, earlier this year the Irving city council voted to support an anti-Islamic bill that would forbid Texas judges from applying Shariah law in their decisions (This was, of course, already the law.)

Islamophobia, and probably racism, certainly played a role in Ahmed’s ordeal, but the fact is overzealous administrators, zero-tolerance policies, and law enforcement officers ill-equipped to deal with schoolchildren have compromised educational environments throughout the country.

If we’re handcuffing autistic children at the elbows or throwing them in jail overnight, then we’re failing them. If we’re hitting kids with felony weapons charges for bringing fishing tackle to school, then we’re failing them. And if we’re using suspensions (which absolutely do not work) against students who build clocks, or twirl pencils, or write about pot, or chew their Pop-Tarts into the shape of a gun, then we’re failing them.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement is currently developing a specialized police-training program for officers who work in our schools. The sooner, the better. Officers need to understand that they’re dealing with children rather than criminals. They need to ensure that a child’s right to contact their parents is as sacrosanct as any other individual’s right to speak to an attorney. And above all, they need to undertake a comprehensive review of their racial-profiling practices and cultural-sensitivity training — oh yeah, and their use of handcuffs.

Ahmed suffered through a terrifying, traumatizing, and unjust ordeal. Yet because of the mass exposure of what he endured, he’s received invitations to the White House, Facebook headquarters, and the Google science fair. I’m fairly certain that Ahmed is going to come out of this just fine. He’s called it the American dream come true and for him it seems to be so.

For too many others — the ones whose stories won’t go viral — the possibility of the American nightmare remains too real.

Terri Burke on Free Speech Zone with @AlyonaMink

Watch Terri Burke, ACLU of Texas Executive Director, on @HuffPostLive “Free Speech Zone” discussing the school police tasing incident contributing to a student’s fall and hospitalization.

Originally aired on December 9, 2013

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see YouTube’s privacy statement on their website and Google’s privacy statement on theirs to learn more. View the ACLU of Texas’ privacy statement.

You Found Your Voices and You Have Been Heard

By Terri Burke
Executive Director

State Sen. Wendy Davis may be doing the heavy lifting – standing and talking for 13 hours without a break and without food or bathroom breaks – but she is merely an extension of you.

As I have traveled the state since taking this position five and half years ago, whether I was speaking to a group of 20, 50 or even 150 people, over and over I’ve heard you say, “I didn’t know there was anyone else in Texas who thinks like me.”

The extremist minority has always been louder. Until now.

I’ve always believed there are more of us than we knew, and this past week you’ve shown that to be true. It started when we released statewide poll results last Wednesday afternoon showing that 80 percent of Texans’ don’t think legislators ought to be making these deeply personal decisions for women, that what registered voters really want is for their Legislators to focus on jobs, the economy and education.

Every time you showed up, every time you spoke up – whether it was the 700 plus women and men who waited more than 12 hours to speak at the House hearing last Thursday, or the 1300 who filled the Capitol on Sunday as the House took up the anti-reproductive freedom measures – you emboldened so many more to speak up.

Whether you said no to the arrogance of the majority or no to those whose actions are driven merely for short-term political game, you emboldened so many more.

You were heard across the nation and around the world – really.

It appears victory is in sight. We know this is only one battle in a much bigger war against women and poor people. We can bask in the win tonight and then we have to start again.

Our poll showed clearly that supporting the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship isn’t a Democratic or liberal position. In fact, 50 percent of the respondents to our poll said they are Republicans or tend to vote Republican, while 37 percent said they are Democrats or tend to vote Democratic.

We must encourage all Texans to join us in this fight; we will start now to educate the public about what their legislature tried to do to them in the name of politics and we will remind them over and over through the 2014 elections and as we prepare for the 84th Legislative Session in 2015.

And we will remember those who stood so tall, so long, so resolute.

Be sure to send your thank-you notes to these Texas heroes:

Rep. Jessica Farrar, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, Rep. Senfronia Thompson, Rep. Donna Howard, Rep. Sarah Davis, Sen. Kirk Watson, Rep. Yvonne Davis, Sen. John Whitmire, Rep. Nicole Collier, Rep. Mary Gonzalez, Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, Rep. Mary Ann Perez, Rep. Roberto Alonzo, Rep. Alma Allen, and thank Wendy for standing up for Texas women.

At the same time, don’t forget those whose arrogance and complete disregard for the people whose business they were elected to conduct put us through this costly, needless exercise.

On second thought, maybe we should thank Rick Perry and David Dewhurst for helping us find our voices.

They Think We Are Stupid

Terri Burke
Executive Director

The Houston Chronicle on Thursday said there is a “foul odor” about this legislative special session. I agree.

The reasons we agree are many, not the least of which is that the majority of Texans aren’t interested in more restrictions on access to abortion services. We’ve got three polls to prove it, yet Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst think we are stupid, that they know best – or maybe it’s just that they’re pandering to the minority of loud-mouthed right-wing extremists.

There is also the matter of the leadership thinking we are too stupid to notice they changed the rules for this oh-so-very urgent matter to be taken up in the special session.

First, there are the polls. During the regular session we polled in three specific Senate districts, all heavily Latino and less urban, even rural in one case. Among the opinions polled, two questions asked how strongly respondents agreed with these statements:

“Personal, private medical decisions of whether to have an abortion should be made by a woman, her family, and her doctor, not by politicians.” The “Strongly Agree” responses ranged from 70 to 74 percent across the three Senate districts.

“Instead of spending time passing more laws restricting abortion, the state legislature in Texas should be focusing on creating jobs and growing the economy.” Here, the “Strongly Agree” responses ranged from 71 to 75 percent.

Rick Perry and David Dewhurst and several key members of the legislative leadership think they know best and legislators ought to spend more of our tax dollars and more of everyone’s time on subjects Texans don’t care about.

Then, there is the rules change. They think we don’t understand that what they are doing is sort of like a losing high school football team moving the game to another field where there are no referees. The Senate rules of the 83rd regular session require 2/3 of the body – 21 members – to vote to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. It is widely agreed that the rule is designed to protect the legislature from spending time on matters that have limited, sometimes only extremist, support.

During the 83rd regular session, only two reproductive freedom bills got out of committee and placed on the Senate Intent Calendar. Neither ever drew 2/3 support to be brought to the floor.

Now, we come to the 1st special session of the 83rd Legislature, and the rules have been changed. They moved the game to a field with no referees: Dewhurst unilaterally, as his office permits, decided the 2/3 rule would not apply. It doesn’t apply to the redistricting issue for which the special session was originally called; it doesn’t apply to the transportation bills being considered; and it doesn’t apply to the four anti-abortion bills (and the omnibus bill the four have been rolled into).

They think we don’t see what they are doing. They claim they are representing the views of most Texans. They are not.

They must think we’re stupid.

Drug testing #TANF applicants is wrong. Here’s why!

By Terri Burke
Executive Director

A few days ago we posted our response on Facebook to a proposed law that would require drug testing of applicants for Temporary Assistance of Needy Families (TANF), which was endorsed by Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov. Dewherst. Our post drew a number of very spirited replies from supporters and non-supporters. To those who commented, thank you all for writing. Let me respond to some of your comments to emphasize a few points:

Halyi, There is no evidence welfare recipients use drugs at a higher rate than the rest of the population. When Florida tried this, over the 4 month period before the courts shut them down, the state lost $45,000 and discovered only 2.6 percent of the folks tested positive for drugs.

Jonathan, this drug test will only identify drug “use” not abuse. However much some of us may deplore any drug use, there is a difference between use and abuse. Moreover, the constitutional questions raised by mandatory government testing are far more problematic than testing by a private employer. This represents serious government overreach.

Robert, children of the occasional marijuana smoker are surely better off with that parent than being thrown into the Child Protective Services system (I don’t know where you live but search www.chron.com for some very scary stories about that if you haven’t seen them).

Johnathan, the average TANF monthly check is about $200, according to Gov. Perry. I don’t know much about drugs, but I doubt that buys very many.

Keilah, if you buy the argument that the taxpayers have a right to demand that those who receive taxpayer dollars be drug tested, then why aren’t we demanding drug testing of all the veterans, the senior citizens who receive Medicare and Social Security, farmers who get government subsidies, entrepreneurs who receive Texas Enterprise Funds from the governor’s office, and so on. My point is quite simple: we are making poverty a crime. We are going to drug test a group of people who differ from these others only because they may be poorer, they may be black, they may be brown – not because they are drug users.

I’m sorry we disagree on this but I hope you will continue to comment on our Facebook posts, receive our emails, and continue to challenge us when you think we should be. It is only through these dialogues that we get a better sense of the thinking of all Texans.

Our most fundamental right is in jeopardy

By Terri Burke
Executive Director

The day I cast my first vote, admittedly for losing candidates, I walked a little taller because I was certain that day I had become an adult.  To this day, my family may have to miss spending Thanksgiving together, but we always get together in person or, now, virtually, on Election Day. Simply put, for me, there is just no constitutional right more important than the right to vote. Without it, our Constitution is not worth the paper it is printed on.

That’s why I’m so excited to have been invited to hear Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on Tuesday night at the LBJ Auditorium in Austin. The late president’s family will be there to hear General Holder talk about the importance of voting rights and Lyndon Johnson’s heroic leadership in getting the law enacted.

The Attorney General is expected to reiterate the importance of respecting and ensuring the voting rights of all Americans. In Texas, this means, fighting back against those who would shrink our democracy by restricting the right to vote.

We await a decision from the Department of Justice about the legality of Texas’ new Voter ID law under the Voting Rights Act. I trust that the justice department sees clearly the motives of those who would deny large groups of Texans their right to vote.  It would be funny if it weren’t so awful: our state ranks among the lowest (45th in 2008) in the nation in voter turnout. We ought to be thinking of ways to promote and ensure the right to vote; instead we are shamefully making it more difficult for people to exercise their constitutional right.  As I told the Texas Senate in January, this law is a solution in search of a problem. There is NO evidence of in-person voter fraud in Texas.

Our new Voter ID law, like efforts in at least six other states, is designed to keep people of color and those in lower income groups away from the polls.  Here’s why: it would require a registered voter who previously only had to present her voter registration card to now show a Texas drivers’ license, a Texas state ID card, a concealed handgun carry license, a U.S. military card or a U.S. passport.  Unable to show any of these, she may cast a provisional ballot, which will only be counted if she comes forward with the required ID within 6 days. (Small comfort, as our state has one of the lowest rates of cleared provisional ballots in the country. About eighty percent were rejected in 2008.)

If this law is allowed to stand, our state will have serious problems.  An expert on census and voting reviewed three demographic studies and concluded that hundreds of thousands of minority voters do not have the required identification. Nor will it be easy for them to get the IDs required to vote. Almost half of Texas’ 254 counties have drivers’ license offices with reduced hours or no motor vehicle office at all.

A person who lives in, let’s say, the Big Bend area of Texas where her county has no motor vehicles office, faces potentially insurmountable hurdles. First, she has to have a birth certificate ($22) or a marriage license ($71) if there has been a name change or a passport ($110) to get the state-issued ID.  Then, there is the cost of the trip to the drivers’ license office; in the case of the Big Bend resident, it’s about an hour and half to the nearest office in Alpine.  With gas prices so high, she could spend up to $85 for the roundtrip. And remember, our potential voter doesn’t drive: she has to find a friend or relative who does have a drivers’ license. And then there are the costs of lost wages. It’s like that advertisement says: The Cost of the Right to Vote in Texas? priceless.

Under this law Texans — particularly those who are elderly or have disabilities or are students or are voters of color or are low-income — will have their cherished constitutional right to vote restricted. That’s wrong, and we hope Attorney General Holder will put a stop to it.

Click on our voting rights action alert, and urge the Department of Justice to exercise its authority under the Voting Rights act and block this suppression measure.

Smart-on-crime: Keep non-violent drug offenders out of jail

By Terri Burke

According to the Houston Chronicle, Houston police miss the good ole days when they could slap a felony charge and lock people away for possession of trace amounts of crack cocaine.  The vice president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization actually advocates throwing drug users behind bars for trace possession because “they” are the type of individuals who commit burglary and robbery. I didn’t realize Minority Report was about Houston.  I must have missed the part of the Constitution that permits police to arrest and jail individuals for crimes they have not yet committed.

HPD’s ire centers around a decision made by Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos in January, 2010 when she decided the county would stop prosecuting trace drug crimes as felonies. The ACLU of Texas applauds her smart-on-crime decision, and hopes she sticks to her principles.

Why is this issue so important to Texas?

–          Cost: The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council estimates that since this policy has been implemented, there have been 400 fewer inmates in jail on any given day.   At a cost of between $45 and $65 per prisoner per day, this policy saves taxpayers between $6.5 and $9.4 million on an annual basis.  These resources would be better spent on efforts to decrease the occurrences of dangerous crimes that pose a threat to Texas, or to create more drug treatment centers that would help people get back on the right track.

–          Public health: To effectively end drug abuse, drug addiction should be treated as a public health issue instead of as a criminal issue. This is a simple fact. Treatment – not incarceration – lowers drug use.  In fact, states with higher rates of drug incarceration actually have higher rates of drug use. Without effective treatment, drug addicts, once released from jail, will likely end up back behind bars.

–          Institutional racism: On a national level, African Americans comprise 13 percent of the US population and 14 percent of drug users.  Yet, they make up 56 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes.  In Texas, 8 out of 9 regional narcotic task forces search African Americans for drugs more often than they search whites –no wonder this racial discrepancy exists.

–          Community: Most drug users and addicts are non-violent offenders. And they are real people, with real families and real jobs.    Sending a non-violent parent with a drug problem to jail instead of treatment is detrimental to the family and the community.  More than half the people in Texas prisons are parents and sending first-time and non-violent offenders to jail instead of treatment further harms their children.  Children who have a parent in prison are five times more likely to commit crimes themselves. Some of these children also end up in the foster care system – at an additional expense to the taxpayer.  In addition, people with felony convictions have a much harder time finding work after they have done their jail time, which leads to struggling families and economically depressed communities.  It is better for society as a whole to treat first time and non-violent offenders than to incarcerate them.

We couldn’t agree more with State District Judge Michael McSpadden, who advocates for more drug treatment options and giving drug addicts a second chance.  The war on drugs has been an expensive failure and it is past time to change gears.

Terri Burke is the executive director of the ACLU of Texas, headquartered in Houston.

Case of Humberto Leal Isn’t About Death Penalty: It’s About Following the Rule of Law and the Safety of Americans Abroad

By Terri Burke
Executive Director

We’ve gotten some comments about our Community Action Network (CAN) email last week calling for a stay of execution for a Mexican national set to die today, July 7, in the Texas death chamber. I want to further explain our position and share why we feel it is so important for Texans and all Americans to heed this plea.

Although the ACLU does oppose the death penalty, the Leal matter is not about the pros and cons of the death penalty. Further, we agree that illegal actions and behaviors should be addressed and appropriate punishment meted out without regard for a person’s status in this country. We believe in the Rule of Law; therefore, if we as a nation, as a people, begin to behave like the lowest common denominator, then we become no better than those we would judge and punish.

Unlike many other nations, in the U.S., every criminal defendant – citizen or non-citizen – has a right to an attorney. An international treaty, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, signed in 1963 by the U.S. and 159 other nations, obligates us to ensure that citizens of other countries arrested in the U.S. know they have the right to contact their embassies. U.S. citizens have reciprocal rights in every other signatory country. Given the state of the world today, we don’t want to appear to be thumbing our noses at an international agreement, putting Americans at risk while traveling abroad.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held that Mr. Leal was entitled to a hearing on the consular rights violation in his case. President Bush, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Obama Administration have all acknowledged that the United States is obligated to comply with ICJ’s decision. President Obama has asked that the Leal execution be stayed.

Congress has introduced legislation that would require implementation of the ICJ’s decision. The bill before Congress has the support of the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State.

Justice requires a stay of Mr. Leal’s execution while Congress acts to make sure we fulfill our obligations as a nation of laws, not of vengeance, privilege, or special interests.

Molly Ivins’ ‘Kick-Ass Wit’ On Stage

Molly Ivins playBy Terri Burke, ACLU of Texas Executive Director

We missed Liz Carpenter’s memorial service. The ACLU of Texas was observing Final Friday in Philadelphia. Given our proximity to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the occasion, Liz probably would have approved.

Our Final Friday party was a night to remember one of our other leading ladies, another true Texas daughter of the revolution.

The Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, starring a spot-on Kathleen Turner, opened in Philadelphia last week. Some 30 to 40 fellow Texans were there to relive another time in our history as chronicled by our saucy, native pundit laureate.

Playwrights Allison and Margaret Engel smartly interweave the life of the private Molly with that of the social and political commentator whose words were considered scriptural by her followers and thought by her detractors to be proof of the country’s demise and the liberal bent of all the newspapers that published them. As Molly’s co-author and long-time friend, Lou Dubose said, “The sisters Engel avoided caricature and cliché, and managed to capture the complexity that was Molly. Kathleen Turner avoided impersonation, although at times she seemed to be channeling Molly.’’

Kathleen Turner and the Engel sisters gave us a night of laughter, tears, and memories. Could we ever forget Texas house Speaker Gib Lewis, whose speech patterns Molly dubbed Gibberish. (New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, sitting next to me, asked, “Did he really talk that way?”) “Molly” onstage reminded us that she had coined the name “Shrub” for another famous Texan. She reflected on one more of our revolutionary daughters, the friend she called “Annie,” Gov. Ann Richards. And there were the tales once again of Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.

Within the first 15 minutes, it was as if Molly with her whiskey-laden voice was back. Betsy Moon, Molly’s longtime “Chief of Stuff” who also attended, said, “This portrait of Molly moved me to tears and laughter, as if I were once again in her presence.”

Those of us who cherish the Constitution were moved all over again by her words. She reminded us that our history has been one long fight to add groups to the protections in that Constitution who should have been included in the first place. Why do we let extremists take words like “freedom,” and “liberty” from us? Why do we stand still when they stake their claim to prayer and God? Why do we allow people who are unburdened by any sense of history to hijack the word “patriot” and claim the Fourth of July as their own?

In 2004, explaining why, after her bequests to her family, she left the remainder of her estate to the ACLU and the Texas Observer, Molly wrote, “Looking down the road at the future of freedom, you know they’re going to need help…very few of our constitutional freedoms are tamper-proof. Our reproductive rights are on the chopping block, the line between church and state grows ever thinner…our right to free speech…have been curbed in the name of security.about that bequest

Yes, it seemed as if little has changed, and we could have been observing Final Friday with her in Austin. Yet there we were celebrating Molly, and remembering Ann and Liz. I suspect the three of them may have been sitting together on a cloud of angels, joining in the party, smiling at the irony of our location. Of course, they probably were disappointed that we didn’t try to sneak past the guards and ring the hell out of the Liberty Bell. We thought about it.

Insiders Guide: Farmers Branch, TCC and SBOE

I write Terri Burketo tell you about two recent successes and to assure you that we are not standing still while our state becomes the butt of national jokes.

This week, a federal judge invalidated Ordinance 2952, the third in a series of anti-immigrant ordinances enacted by the city of Farmers Branch. The ordinance was adopted by the City Council in January 2008. U.S. District Judge Jane J. Boyle’s decision forbids the city from ever enforcing the Ordinance.

In a carefully written opinion, Judge Boyle determined that the ordinance was preempted by federal law. The Court resoundingly rejected the City’s claim that it had the authority to regulate the residences of noncitizens within its borders. Noting that the city building inspector would be charged with interpreting and applying immigration information to prospective tenants, the court concluded that Ordinance 2952 “is an invalid regulation of immigration” and that the “Ordinance stands as an obstacle to the uniform application of federal immigration law.”

Together with MALDEF and the National ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project we began working to repeal these ordinances in 2006. With this third strike, we hope the city will get out of the immigration enforcement business and move on to address its municipal obligations through more constructive and constitutional local policies.

The State Board of Education is the gift that keeps on giving to late night comedians and faux newscasters. Although I, like many of you, have gotten plenty of chuckles from the laugh lines, we all know that distorting history to accommodate a religious or ideological agenda isn’t funny at all. The SBOE is no laughing matter.

Our ACLU of Texas phone lines and in-boxes have gotten a workout from those of you who are irate about the spectacle this elected body has made of our state. You know as do we that this isn’t just about being embarrassed by a bunch of extremists. It is about our shared outrage at a group of elected officials trying to use public schools to indoctrinate students while providing a substandard education that won’t equip Texas graduates to compete nationally and internationally.

While we’ve tried to respond personally to you in many instances, I want to assure you that we are on the case. Early this year our Public Education Director Dotty Griffith testified before the state board urging them not to inject religious indoctrination into social studies curriculum.

Make no mistake. We do not intend to stand by quietly while the State Board of Education launches repeated attacks on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights by rewriting history one distortion and omission at a time. We are studying our options. We will continue to speak out.

In the meantime, we urge you to exercise your right to vote. Extremists got elected because not enough reasonable people took the time and energy to learn about the track records and endorsements of SBOE candidates. Reasonable people can begin to take back the SBOE in the upcoming runoff election and again at general election time.

This fight isn’t over by any means. Stand strong with us and we’ll keep you posted on what we are doing – and what we need you to do.

On another matter, it isn’t always easy being us. We are known for taking principled stands on difficult issues. Last week we won a victory for the First Amendment by defending the right of Tarrant Community College students who wanted to wear empty holsters on campus to protest laws prohibiting concealed firearms on campus.

To be clear: The ACLU of Texas does not, nor does the national ACLU, have a position in favor of or against handguns on college campuses. But what the ACLU has and always will favor is the First Amendment.

Even when an issue is controversial, every individual has a right to speak out on matters of public policy, including arguing against laws with which they disagree, in a peaceful and orderly manner. Speech, in the eyes of the First Amendment, includes not only spoken and written words, but also demonstrative conduct like wearing a symbolic armband, saluting or refusing to salute the flag, or, in this case, wearing an empty holster to convey a message about a ban on concealed weapons.

That’s the right we went to court to protect. I am proud of our legal team – Lisa Graybill and Fleming Terrell – and grateful to our cooperating counsel, David Broiles and Karin Cagle of Ft. Worth. I know you are, too.

We can’t do this work without your support. We are grateful for your financial gifts that make it possible for us to continue the fight on behalf of the principles we all hold so dear.

With liberty and justice for all,
Terri Burke
Executive Director
ACLU of Texas