“I think I witnessed someone being murdered.”

By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator

The ACLU of Texas Immigrants’ Rights campaign and the Southern Border Communities Coalition has worked to shed light on Border Patrol brutality and rights abuses—including the eight men and boys agents have shot and killed over the past two years. On April 20, we shocked the nation with the exposé “Crossing the Line,” which aired on the PBS show Need to Know.

Watch Crossing the line at the border on PBS. See more from Need To Know. WARNING: Watching this video will take you to an outside website with a privacy policy that differs from ACLU of Texas. A copy of PBS’s privacy policy can be read here.

Take Action

Join the the ACLU of Texas community action network to help stop the abuse of power.

Day of Silence

By Gislaine Williams
Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator

Students in Texas and across the country are remaining silent today to raise awareness about the traumatizing effects of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools.  They’re taking part in the annual Day of Silence, a national event hosted by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that empowers students to stand up for themselves and their peers.

The Day of Silence started 16 years ago and unfortunately, its message is still relevant today. Schools are failing to protect students from bullying. Some schools administrators have condoned bullying against LGBT youth and even blame the victims of bullying. We’re concerned by the number of students being pushed out of school as a result of bullying and deeply saddened every time we hear of a bullied child being driven to suicide.

We must all work together to defend the right of every student to be safe in school. We commend the students standing together in silence today and support their efforts to create a better school environment for LGBT students.

Attend Day of Silence events in Houston and Dallas:

The ACLU of Texas will be sharing resources at GLSEN-Houston’s Breaking the Silence celebration in Houston at the University of Houston at 6pm. RSVP and see details at: http://www.facebook.com/events/219237144849640/

GLSEN-Dallas and Youth First will host a Breaking the Silence event in Dallas starting at 4pm. View the details:  http://www.youthfirsttexas.org/youth-first-texas-and-glsen-team-up-to-break-the-silence/

Learn More

Find out about the students’ rights in school.

Take Action

Tell legislators to make Texas bully-free!

#TextsFromHillary Contest Winners!

By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator

We hundreds of participants in our #Textsfromhillary Faceboook contest. Check out the top five:

5th Place

Submitted by Christopher Powell

4th Place

Submitted by Cathy Carpenter

3rd Place

Submitted by L Leaf Wight

2nd Place

Submitted by Michaela Hoffmeyer

Our Winner

Submitted by Christopher Keeble

Thanks to everyone who participated in the contest! It was hard to pick a winner with so many hilarious entries. Click here for more contest entries here. Like the ACLU of Texas on our Facebook to stay in touch and look out for future contests.

Court Rules Arizona’s Law Restricting Voter Access is Unconstitutional

By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator

Today, the Ninth Circuit ruling in Gonzalez v. State of Arizona struck down critical provisions of an Arizona law that restricted voter access.

The plaintiff in the case, Jesus Gonzalez, was a newly-naturalized U.S. Citizen when he tried to register to vote. Jesus provided his driver’s license and his naturalization certificate number, but was rejected twice. Arizona officials claimed they couldn’t confirm his citizenship.

Texas should recognize that laws like Arizona’s Proposition 200, which passed in 2004, are unconstitutional and violate the National Voting Rights Act because they force U.S. citizens to go through unnecessary obstacles to vote.

“The court was correct in ruling that federal law does not require residents to produce unnecessary documents proving their citizenship in order to register to vote,” said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “This is an important victory at a time when many states are making it harder for people to exercise their fundamental right to vote, which is the backbone of our democracy. We hope this decision sends a message to other states that we should not be making it harder for people to participate in our political process.”

Learn more about the work the ACLU is doing to stop voter suppression .

An Inhumane Milestone in Louisiana … Let’s Ensure Texas Does Not Follow Louisiana’s Lead

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Imagine being locked in a 9ft-by-6ft windowless room for 23 hours a day with only a toilet, mattress, sheets, blanket, pillow and small bench.  Imagine this went on for 40 years (or 14,610 days) with no earthly end in sight.  Imagine that during those 40 years your only contact with the outside world was limited to the infrequent visits and telephone calls, the opportunity to use a caged concrete yard three times a week, and letters (already opened and read by prison guards).  Under what despotic regime could this occur?  Stalin’s?  Kim Jong-il’s?  Nope, this occurred, and continues to occur in Louisiana.

As The Guardian reported yesterday, “[Herman] Wallace and his friend Albert Woodfox … mark[ed] one of the more unusual, and shameful, anniversaries in American penal history.  Forty years ago to the day, they were put into solitary confinement in Louisiana’s notorious Angola jail.  They have been there ever since.”  Mr. Wallace and Mr. Woodfox are better known as two of the Angola 3.

Regardless of their (or any inmate’s) actual guilt or innocence, the use of solitary confinement is inhumane treatment.  While Texas may not have any inmates near the horrific milestone achieved in Louisiana, administrative segregation (what Texas calls solitary confinement) is commonplace in Texas state prisons.

Solitary confinement has a drastic and almost immediate negative impact on prisoners’ mental health – this does not benefit anyone.  Human contact is essential for ensuring successful prisoner re-entry into society and reducing recidivism rates.  Prisoners in administrative segregation are also denied access to church services and work programs.  In the end, all Texans pay for the failure of solitary confinement.

Fortunately, there is something we can all do to stop this.  The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is under its periodic review by the Sunset Commission.  This review process provides us, the public, with an opportunity to let the Sunset Commission know that it is time for Texas to end this inhumane, counterproductive, and costly practice.  Take action here!

All You Missed at the Civil Rights Conference in Houston if you Weren’t There

By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator

Deaths of Trayvon Martin and a beaten Iraqi mother in San Diego are extreme examples of the need for civil rights dialogue in America. We started that much needed dialogue at our day long Civil Right Conference last month. A civil rights coalition made up of civil rights organizations from around the state came together to discuss Civil rights post 9/11, immigrants’ rights, and Criminal Law Reform. Hundreds of concerned Texans gathered for an entire day to listen. The day was topped off with a moving speech from Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!

Check out our full recap:

Oscar Chacon, Executive Director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, kicked off the conference with a civil rights overview.

Understanding Civil Rights Post 9/11

Mustafaa Carroll of CAIR Texas Houston Chapter moderated the Understanding Civil Rights Post 9/11 track.

Corey Saylor from CAIR spoke about islamaphobia and civil rights post 9/11.

Rick Halperin of SMU said, “Free speech in this country stops at the sidewalk of the supreme court” during his presentation on the right to protest and free speech. One Twitter follower wrote: “Rick Halperin of SMU killer speech on US history of oppression and free speech.”

Matt Simpson [Pictured middle] from the ACLU of Texas followed with a great speech about national security and privacy issues post 9/11.

Immigrants’ Rights

Baldo Garza of LULAC moderated the immigrants rights panel.

Krystal Gomez [Pictured far left] from the ACLU of Texas presented on detention and deportation. Brent Wilkes [Pictured middle] from LULAC followed with a talk on immigration reform. Geoff Hoffman [Pictured far right] from the UH Law Center Immigration Clinic ended the discussion with a presentation about local, state, and federal enforcement.

Tribute to Cesar Chavez

Lunch was served during a tribute to César Chávez by Frank Curiel who was once Chávez’s bodyguard and close friend.

Our twitter followers wrote: “Things I didn’t know about Cesar Chavez: he was an environmentalist and vegetarian.”

And “Great perspective on Cesar Chavez life & struggle of farm workers by Frank Curiel.”

Criminal Justice Reform

Watch the Criminal Justice panel. Tarsha Jackson from Texas Families of Incarcerated Youth moderated. Ana Yanez-Correa [Pictured far right] from TCJC presented on over-incarceration. Gislaine Williams [Pictured middle right] from the ACLU of Texas discussed the school-to-prison pipeline and bullying in public schools. Gislaine said, “talking in class shouldn’t be a class c misdemeanor!”

Bob Libal [Pictured middle left] from Grassroots Leadership talked private prisons.

Dave Atwood [Pictured far left] from HPJC and TCADP closed the discussion with a speech about the death penalty in Texas. Dave stated, “The death penalty on its way out. Except in Ohio and Southern states.”

Amy Goodman

The room filled up for the keynote address by Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!

Amy urged listeners to actively fight for civil rights by quoting Barack Obama, “I don’t disagree with anything you say but you’ll have to make me do it.” If you missed her speech watch it here now.

We addressed the important issues facing our community today. Check out the Houston Chronicle’s article about the civil rights conference.

Special thanks to all the coalition members that made the conference a success:

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas
Black Heritage Society
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Texas – Houston Chapter
Central American Resource Center (CARECEN)
Houston Interfaith Workers Justice Center
Houston Peace and Justice Center (HPJC)
Houston United – Houston Unido
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Shades of White
Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJP)
Texas Families of Incarcerated Youth
Think Peace International Inc.
Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP)
KPFT Radio

For more information visit http://civilrightscoalition.wordpress.com/.

From undermining democracy to increasing mass incarceration, ALEC has got it covered

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Reacting to backlash against voter suppression efforts promulgated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), two of the organization’s giant corporate members – Coca Cola and PepsiCo – have succumbed to pressure from public interest groups and severed their ties to the group.

According to a National Public Radio report, ALEC promotes business-friendly legislation in state capitols and drafts model bills for state legislatures to adopt.  They range from little-noticed pro-business bills to more controversial measures, including photo voter identification laws.  These laws directly benefit the corporations’ bottom line regardless of the societal cost.

Thankfully, the truth is starting to come out about how ALEC is an affront to our democracy.  A few days ago the Huffington Post published an article titled How Are ALEC Laws Undermining Our Democracy?

So what kind of bills does ALEC draft and spread state to state? According to the article:

–       Democracy-undermining Voter ID legislation that has been passed in at least 14 states – under the guise of preventing election fraud (which no one can actually find).

–       Voucher programs that privatize public education.

–       Anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s SB 1070.

–       Anti-worker legislation.

–       Laws that undermine smart-on-crime reforms, such as “three strikes,” mandatory minimum sentencing, and “truth in sentencing.”

As the list above shows, ALEC’s model legislation has a real world negative impact on the civil liberties of all Americans, puts more people needlessly behind bars, undermines our democracy, and makes communities across the country less safe.

The ACLU of Texas works to protect the civil liberties of all Texans, but we need your help.  Follow our work and join our Community Action Network – together we can ensure that civil liberties, not corporate profits, prevail at the Texas Capitol.

FAQ: School Prayer Edition

By Victor Cornell
Religious Freedom Campaign Coordinator

Recently, we asked people to take our survey about schools that have students vote on whether to pray at graduation. We received a lot of responses telling us how uncomfortable prayer at graduation made some people, and how they felt excluded or stigmatized at their own graduations. But we also got responses from people who were confused about what is ok and what is not when it comes to prayer in school. So let’s consult the First Amendment and see if we can’t clear things up!

Question: Why can’t students pray? Isn’t that covered by freedom of religion or freedom of speech?

Answer: They can pray, and prayer is protected! Contrary to what you may have heard on the news from certain former presidential primary candidates, students of all religions have the right to practice their religion at school. That right is protected by both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and by the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.1 Students absolutely have the right to pray voluntarily in school, alone or with friends at any time that doesn’t disrupt classes.2 But here’s the part where people get tripped up. One of the most important ways that the law protects students’ religious freedom is by preventing the government – including government-run public schools – from telling kids when or what to pray. The same First Amendment that ensures students have the freedom to practice and express their faith is what protects students from having any religion or prayer forced on them by schools.

Question: What’s wrong with schools promoting religion?

Answer: Public schools are government entities; therefore they must respect all faiths and favor none. Along the same lines, the government cannot show a preference for religion in general over the beliefs of nonreligious people.3 Matters of individual conscience should be left to the individual, not forced upon students by school administrators or teachers. That’s the very definition of freedom!

Question: If the whole school votes and a majority say they want a prayer at an event, wouldn’t that be okay?

Answer: No. One of the most important jobs of the Constitution is to protect the freedom of the minority to practice a faith that the majority may disagree with. Balloting or voting for prayer still favors the majority religion over others and is unfair to the students whose beliefs don’t conform to the majority. In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the Supreme Court held that by setting up an election and providing the stage for prayer, the school was still coercing students to pray.4 It doesn’t matter whether the person leading the prayer is invited clergy or a student or if the prayer is non-denominational; it’s all coercive and unconstitutional if school officials organize, sponsor or endorse it.

A few respondents to the survey worried that the ACLU of Texas was discriminating against Christians. But think of it this way. What would happen if a Texas school opened its graduation ceremony with a Wiccan Esbat ritual or a chanting of Hindu kirtans? Do you think the Christians in the audience would be offended? Do you think they might feel that they were being forced to participate in religious rituals that conflict with their cherished, deeply held beliefs? Of course they would! And rightly so!

The question is, “How would you feel if that happened at your graduation?” Unfortunately, it happens to students across Texas every year, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, or atheist. We are reminded of Luke 6:31 (NIV) “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

The good news is, whenever coerced prayer happens in Texas, we are there, defending the Constitution and students’ freedoms of and from religion!

Know Your Rights! – Students’ Religious Rights at School

1Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 110.003.
2Tex. Educ. Code § 25.901. See also Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 512-13 (1969).
3See Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 53 (1985).
4Santa Fe, 530 U.S. at 317.

Another reason why the Dream Act is good for Texas and the United States

By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director

A recent article about the graying population boom, made the point well: the economic demands of boomers may trump political divisiveness over immigration policy.

Aging baby boomers should support the Dream Act and a path to citizenship – not just because it is the right thing to do – but because the country needs this educated workforce.  The article quoted a professor at the UCLA Center for Policy Research on Aging, It will be on the backs, so to speak, of immigrant Hispanic minorities upon whose productivity, labor and taxes we will depend for whatever public benefits, such as Social Security and Medicaid, that <Boomers> may need.

Without these numbers, the looming shortfall in entitlement programs will inflict hardships on boomers that will rival those faced by their parents and grandparents in the Great Depression and World War II.

Nobody wants a “Jail to Nowhere”

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Texas doesn’t need more prisons or jails. In fact, as a recent article by Mike Ward in the Austin American Statesman and the Abilene Reporter News points out, an increasing number of Texas towns and counties have found out that building them is, to put it mildly, economically risky.    The takeaway is clear … Texans don’t need any more “jails to nowhere”.

Crime rates are down, cost effective alternatives to incarceration are up, and the “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice is finally starting to be seen as the failure we have long known it to be.  Evidence based programs, which – by the way – happen to be much less expensive than incarceration, coupled with government budget cuts have started to get lawmakers thinking that incarceration isn’t always the best solution.

Unfortunately, a number of Texas counties and towns (the article points to Anson, Littlefield, and Angelina, Newton, Dickens and Falls Counties as a few examples) were sold on the idea that mass incarceration was in Texas to stay.  According to the article, most of the privately operated county jails sit less than half full, and guess who is left holding the bill?  (Hint – it is not the for-profit prison company). In Falls County, officials are scrambling to fill beds in a county-built private prison after the private company announced it was pulling out.

This is just wrong.  Nobody should be “scrambling” to find prisoners to fill beds. Imprisoning people should never be a business choice, but only a choice driven by public safety.  This is just another example why the for-profit prison model does not work.

The take home message: investing in prisons is a poor investment.  In regard to the counties and towns that are currently struggling with the high cost of empty prison beds, Representative Jerry Madden said it’s sad to say, but they made a business choice, and they’re going to have to live with it at some point.  Other localities in Texas should be fairly warned and not head down that path – both to protect their economic interest, and for the sake of bringing the discussion back to one of public safety for all, not private profit for a few.