A Plug-and-Play Model Policy for Police Body Cameras

Ferguson.

Staten Island.

Pasco.

North Charleston.

Baltimore.

An unarmed person of color. Dead at the hands of law enforcement. And then another. And another. And another. And another.

Seeking to stem the tide of senseless death, a national search began for an appropriate response. In short order, a growing chorus of elected officials, law enforcement, and community leaders settled on a common answer: police body cameras. Recent surveys suggest that more than one in four police agencies have already started using them.

Unfortunately, the violence, injustice, and inequity that plague our system of law enforcement will not be solved simply by affixing tiny cameras to officers' lapels. In fact, without the proper policies in place, the widespread deployment of police body cameras could do more harm than good. If body cameras are used to cast a net of roving surveillance over communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, they will cause harm. If police officers are given discretion as to when to turn on and off their cameras and key moments go uncaptured when violence erupts, they will cause harm. If video footage is captured but state laws or law enforcement policies prohibit the public from viewing it, they will cause harm. And if body camera videos are released en masse, resulting in the widespread violation of American's privacy with no public benefit — except perhaps to fans of TMZ and "COPS" style reality shows — they will cause harm.

If, however, police body cameras are deployed within the framework of a well-considered policy that strikes the proper balance between promoting transparency and protecting privacy, police body cameras might just do some good. To that end, and in response to overwhelming demand, the ACLU is releasing a model bill for use by state legislatures and local police departments to guide the development of their laws, policies, and procedures on the use of body cameras. This model bill is far more than a wish list — it is a comprehensive plug-and-play policy for those seeking to implement a sound police body camera program.

To date, we know of no state government or local police department body camera policy that checks all the right boxes. For example, Seattle's pilot program has strong rules governing when body cameras should be used, but it falls short in allowing police officers to review video footage before filing reports, which undermines investigations into police misconduct in many ways. The Seattle program also lacks disciplinary measures for officers who violate the rules.

The Los Angeles Police Department's policy, while fairly strong as to when officers should and should not use their body cameras, completely undercuts the goal of promoting transparency by hiding virtually all body camera footage away from the public. And in a state like Florida, even the best department-level body camera policies will be undermined by a new state law that shields large classes of body camera footage from disclosure under the pretext of protecting privacy.

To some extent, the hit-and-miss nature of state and local policies is understandable. The popular outcry for body cameras and the subsequent rush to use them in an effort to save lives and to bolster accountability left little time for contemplating complex issues of public policy and constitutional rights.

But the ACLU has taken that time. We have spent countless hours examining and contemplating police body camera policies, including in those areas where principles we care deeply about — like privacy, racial justice, reforming police practices, and criminal justice reform — are inescapably at odds with each other. The result is that we have come through the process with a model bill that wisely balances the many important and competing interests that are inherent in any police body camera policy.

As we gain more real world experience with police body cameras, it is very possible some policy determinations reflected in our model bill may need to be reconsidered. That being said, the ACLU is confident the recommendations in our model bill are strong enough to be relied upon by states and local police departments throughout the nation.

There is much we must do to remedy the shortcomings of our nation's law enforcement system. The implementation of sound police body camera programs is just a small piece of that effort, but if done right, it will likely be an important and valuable step in the right direction.

How to get the knotty issue of police body cameras right.

To Prevent Abortion Access, Legislators are Risking Women’s Lives

Access to safe and legal abortion is an incontrovertible constitutional right, though extremists in the Texas Capitol are doing their level best to change that. Emboldened by its past, dubious success with the now-infamous HB 2, this week the legislature is poised to pass two measures—HB 3994 and SB 575—that continue to whittle away at women’s access to health care, and in a worst-case scenario, would risk their very lives.

Representative Geanie Morrison’s (R-Victoria) HB 3994 follows a trend set by a number of measures introduced this session that create big problems by feigning to address issues that happen not to exist in the first place. Currently, minors seeking an abortion in Texas must first have parental consent, but in those rare instances where those minors either cannot or will not get that consent, they may seek to override the requirement by going before a judge in a process called “judicial bypass.” Through its onerous and ill-defined ID requirement, its needless deadline extensions, and its flagrant disdain for confidentiality, HB 3994 serves to make each and every step of the bypass process more difficult and, in many cases, impossible.

Given that only about one half of one percent of all abortions performed in Texas involve minors seeking judicial bypass, the bill’s scope is limited. However, the women who do seek judicial bypass are usually doing so for a very good reason: oftentimes these young women are victims of abuse, neglect, or sex trafficking, and their lives are about to be made considerably harder simply to satisfy the social agenda of a few Texas extremists. This bill is designed to hurt vulnerable children. That is precisely what it will do, and that is all that it will do.

For its part, SB 575 is an insidious and frankly baffling piece of legislation diametrically opposed to the conservative philosophy that holds that the state should leave businesses alone. Ostensibly tailored to prevent federal funding of abortions through the ACA exchange, in practice SB 575 makes it illegal for private health insurers to cover abortions for their clients, leaving them with nowhere to turn.

Additionally, while SB 575 does contain an exception for life endangerment, it provides no such protections in the case of rape, incest, or severe fetal abnormality. Indeed, the authors of the bill don’t even seem to grasp what a “severe fetal abnormality” actually is. While SB 575’s supporters would argue that pro-choice advocates are seeking abortions in order to avoid having children with Down’s Syndrome or a cleft palate, it’s unlikely they’ve ever had to face broken-hearted families who had to terminate pregnancies due to Anencephaly, Alobar Holophrosencephaly, Patau’s Syndrome, Thanatophoric Dysplasia, or any other of the devastating genetic dispositions that are, according to the medical terminology, “incompatible with life.”

With these two iniquitous bills, extremist elements in the Texas legislature demonstrate how far they’re willing to go to prop up their crumbling anti-choice agenda. These measures are likely to pass, tragically, and so once again we’ll have to look to the courts to ensure that reasonable reproductive policy prevails. In the meantime, however, the women of Texas will continue to suffer at the indifferent and insensitive hands of Texas legislators.

There’s still a chance to convince our leaders to do the right thing: sign the petition today and tell your representatives that they have no right to come between a woman and her doctor.

The Supreme Court Leaves the Americans with Disabilities Act Intact

Teresa Sheehan has survived being shot by the police five times; she has survived the challenges of a psychiatric disability; and she has now survived a challenge at the Supreme Court.

In 2008, Teresa Sheehan was living in a group home for people with serious mental health issues, and experiencing a mental health crisis. Recognizing that Sheehan needed help, a social worker called the police to take her to the hospital. Within minutes of arriving, the police had shot Ms. Sheehan five times.

Teresa Sheehan, however, lived and sued the city of San Francisco for violating her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city then appealed her case all the way to the Supreme Court. When the city asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, it told the court it should decide if the ADA applied to detentions and arrests — a position so surprising, especially for San Francisco, that the city later, in its briefs and oral argument, backed away from it.

The city argued that the police officers were justified in shooting Ms. Sheehan because she had threatened them. Ms. Sheehan argued that the officers should have taken her mental disability into account and used time, patience, and communication to resolve the situation rather than responding with force.

This week, the United States Supreme Court declined to rule for either side on this issue. Because the city did not present any argument on whether the ADA applies to police encounters of this type, the court dismissed the question without ruling on it – an uncommon procedure called "dismissed as improvidently granted." They did say the officers couldn't be sued as individuals.

If the court's opinion doesn't resolve much about police use of deadly force, it brings to light an often overlooked fact in police shootings: According to the best evidence, approximately half of people killed by police are people with disabilities.

We know how to reduce these numbers. Police departments around the country — including departments in Texas, Tennessee and Florida — have adopted crisis intervention trainings and de-escalation strategies to help police officers safely resolve confrontations. Coordination with mental health professionals and clear police department policies, practices, and assessments all provide resources and expectations that can change officer behavior.

Police can and must learn how to de-escalate where appropriate – by differentiating actual danger from perceived danger and by mitigating  rather than exacerbating threats. These approaches have repeatedly demonstrated better, safer outcomes for both people with disabilities and the police.

But wait: Wouldn't this make sense for people who do not have disabilities as well?

Indeed.

The use of de-escalation techniques is as important for the general public as it is for people with disabilities. While the problem before the court involved law enforcement's obligations to people with disabilities, the issue, of course, is much broader. When the police "perceive" a threat, how can they be trained to de-escalate rather than shoot? How do we move away from a model of law enforcement that uses a military approach to conflict and move back to a model that protects and serves the public?

Calm, reasoned de-escalation is not just the right thing for police to do for people with disabilities. It's the right thing to do for everyone. Period.

The police shooting of a mentally disabled woman raised the question of whether police must abide by the ADA.

HIV Is Not a Crime

...except in at least 32 states, it can be.

When we were first confronted with HIV in the United States in the 1980’s, contracting the virus was largely understood to be a death sentence. Thirty years later, with treatment and access to medical care, HIV is a treatable, even if incurable, condition.

Yet even as science and treatment has advanced, we are arresting and locking people with HIV up for engaging in consensual sex, for bleeding, for spitting, for existing.

As the Center for HIV Law and Policy reports, “Thirty-two states and two U.S. territories have HIV-specific criminal statutes and thirty-six states have reported proceedings in which HIV-positive people have been arrested and/or prosecuted for consensual sex, biting, and spitting. At least 180 such prosecutions occurred from 2008 to 2013 alone.”

While framed as public health measures intended to prevent the spread of HIV, in reality these laws stigmatize people with HIV and misrepresent the causes of HIV transmission, the treatment options, and outcomes for people living with HIV and disproportionately impact people of color. 

In reality, as the Department of Justice notes, “many of these state laws criminalize behaviors that the CDC regards as posing either no or negligible risk for HIV transmission even in the absence of risk reduction measures.”

But despite the position of the federal government and major medical associations, state prosecutions for exposure to HIV continue.

Last week, a Missouri jury sentenced Michael Johnson, a young, black gay man living with HIV, to over three decades in prison for allegedly exposing consensual sexual partners to HIV . 

A star wrestler at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, Johnson was revered for his strength, athleticism, and sexual desirability. That same body that brought wrestling wins to the university and which attracted admirers on social media quickly became the subject of racialized tropes about the danger of black male sexuality when he was arrested and his HIV status widely publicized. 

For example, Buzzfeed reported that “Overtly racist blogs, like Chimpmania.com, labeled him an ‘HIV Positive Buck.’” In imagery and discourse that has been used to restrain and criminalize black sexuality since chattel slavery, reports cast him as a strong, predatory weapon that preyed on smaller white victims.

As with many criminal laws, laws making exposure to HIV a crime disproportionately affect gay and trans people of color whose sexuality is already perceived as dangerous and deviant. In response to the racialized targeting of Johnson in the public discourse, fellow black gay men wrote him a public letter of support:

“For you, your accusers saw your Black and masculine body as a site of ultimate sexual pleasure, until they had to deal with you as a whole person. At that moment you became a problem and were disposable to them.”

Johnson went from revered to reviled and spent 18 months in jail awaiting trial. For the past three months, he has had no contact with other prisoners, instead spending 23 hours a day in lockdown segregation. He then was tried and convicted before an almost all-white jury, which included jurors who believed that “homosexuality is a sin.”

Though prosecutors attempted to analogize non-disclosure of HIV to driving under the influence of alcohol, the charge and punishment levied upon Johnson are in no way comparable to how drunk driving is treated under Missouri criminal law. While drunk driving is a misdemeanor offense with a maximum of six months in jail for first time offenders, Johnson was charged and convicted of six felonies and will face between 30 and 60.5 years in prison.

A combination of racism, homophobia, and a gross misunderstanding (or perhaps deliberate rejection) of science led to the inhumane conviction and sentence of Johnson under the HIV criminalization scheme, which is, according to the open letter, “yet another tool used to police and incarcerate bodies that are too often poor, Black or brown, or queer-identified.” 

For those of us in the LGBT community, the rejection and outright disposal of people living with HIV is our history and our fight. There is still work to be done to fight the stigma of living with HIV. Almost 30 -years since the founding of ACT UP, the calls to “Stand up. Fight Back. Fight AIDS.” must continue. And those calls mean fighting the criminalization of HIV. 

And to Michael Johnson, we will stand with you and support you in this fight. Your body was marked for disposal because of your blackness, your gayness, and your HIV status. We will not tolerate such injustice. 

Except in at least 32 states, it can be.

Prosecutor Tells Pregnant Woman Punched in Stomach: “Assault on a Latino by a Latino” Deserves Less Protection

According to Locke Bell, the district attorney of Gaston County, North Carolina, the ethnicity of a domestic-violence survivor can disqualify that person from equal protection under the law. The Charlotte Observer reports that Bell refused to certify a domestic violence survivor’s visa application because he thinks the relevant law protecting crime victims “was never intended to protect Latinos from Latinos.”

The controversy surrounds Evelin, a domestic violence survivor who courageously called police to press charges against her abusive boyfriend. She says he punched her, kicked her, and pulled her hair. Two weeks ago, he returned to her home after being deported, accused her of seeing another man, and repeatedly kicked her. Evelin reported the crime to the police and, as is her right, applied for a U visa.

U visas are for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. Congress created the nonimmigrant, temporary U visa in 2000 — as part of legislation that included the Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act. The visa, contrary to what Bell believes, makes no distinctions based on ethnicity or immigration status.

After hearing that Bell disqualified her from protection based on her ethnicity, Evelin commented: “It’s unfair. It’s unjust. He needs to remember we are all humans.” Michael Moore, president of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA), agreed, telling Latin Times:  “I can’t even find the words to describe [what Bell reportedly did] . . . unprofessional is enough … despicable might be close.”  Moore suggested that if Bell were an NDAA member he’d be subject to expulsion.

If you were expecting the federal government to denounce Bell’s policy, you’ll be disappointed. 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers U visas. It had at least two opportunities to condemn Bell’s racist policy, but the agency has chosen to stay silent. USCIS instead feebly pointed journalists to a website explaining that visa certifications are left to the discretion of prosecutors and law enforcement. But Bell’s decision has nothing to do with the lawful exercise of discretion: It is blatant ethnic discrimination that USCIS and federal civil rights officials should have condemned in the strongest terms.

The Obama administration needs to make amends, go into affected communities, and show that it cares about immigrant crime victims wherever they live.

A study by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Law Immigration/Human Rights Policy Clinic concluded based on survey results that “over 190 certifying agencies [for U visas] refuse to certify based on standards that seem to go beyond the scope of what was intended by Congress.” It criticized the “geography roulette” that determines whether a survivor gets protected. The DePaul University Asylum & Immigration Law Clinic similarly found that “the location of crime has increasingly played a major role in a victim’s access to justice as a result of disparate treatment of U certification.”

In other words, a whole bunch of jurisdictions are denying domestic-violence and other crime survivors’ U-visa certifications in cases despite their eligibility for such visas. Therefore, USCIS urgently needs to be more active in these locations, educating prosecutors and law enforcement agencies about U visas, as well as seeking certification alternatives in recalcitrant jurisdictions.

The UNC study also recommends that the Department of Homeland Security “issue new and/or revised policy memoranda and guidance to give clarity and greater definition regarding the scope of authority of certifying agencies and the parameters of acceptable practice.” New regulations are needed to end the disparate outcomes for similarly situated immigrant crime victims.  Congress should also change the U-visa law to allow qualifying applicants who are wrongly refused certification to receive a U visa from USCIS.

USCIS needs to show that it’s taking Bell’s prejudiced policies seriously by working to eradicate all illegitimate obstacles to U-visa certification. The Obama administration must affirm that racism and national origin animus have no place in U.S. law or life and that it will leave no domestic-violence or other immigrant survivors of crime unprotected. 

Evelin and countless others deserve no less.

U visas protect crime victims who are immigrants, but at least one county denies them based on ethnicity.

UN Issues Scathing Assessment of US Human Rights Record

The U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a scathing report today, consisting of 348 recommendations that address myriad human rights violations in the United States.

The report came out as a part of a mechanism called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which examines the human rights record of all U.N. member states. The council questioned the United States on its record earlier this week.

Although many of these recommendations in the report are redundant or too general to offer tangible solutions to the human rights situation in the U.S., they echo many of the concerns raised by U.S. civil society groups like the ACLU, who attended the review and offered concrete recommendations to reverse policies that are inconsistent with international human rights principles.

For example, the report adopted a recommendation made by Sweden to "halt the detention of immigrant families and children, seek alternatives to detention and end use of detention for reason of deterrence." The report also adopted several recommendations calling on the Obama administration to independently investigate allegations of torture documented in the recent Senate torture report and provide reparations to victims. Denmark, for instance, recommended that the United States "further ensure that all victims of torture and ill-treatment — whether still in US custody or not — obtain redress and have an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation and as full rehabilitation as possible, including medical and psychological assistance."

In addition, the report included many fitting recommendations to address police brutality and excessive use of force as well as ending racial profiling against minorities and immigrants. Mexico recommended that the U.S. "adopt measures at the federal level to prevent and punish excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against members of ethnic and racial minorities, including unarmed persons, which disproportionately affect Afro American and undocumented migrants." Ireland, for its part, directly touched on the broken trust between American law enforcement and communities of color and recommended that the U.S. "continue to vigorously investigate recent cases of alleged police-led human rights abuses against African-Americans and seek to build improved relations and trust between U.S. law enforcement and all communities around the U.S."

While in some areas, like LGBT rights and freedom of speech, the United States' human rights record fares far better than other parts of the world, in many areas  including national security, criminal justice, social and economic rights, and immigration policy  the U.S. has an abysmal record compared to other liberal democracies.

This report sends a strong message of no-confidence in the U.S. human rights record. It clearly demonstrates that the United States has a long way to go to live up to its human rights obligations and commitments. This will be the last major human rights review for the Obama administration, and it offers a critical opportunity to shape the president's human rights legacy, especially in the areas of racial justice, national security, and immigrants' rights.

The Obama administration has until September to respond to the 348 recommendations. At that time, the administration will make a direct commitment to the world by deciding which of the 348 will be accepted and implemented over the next four years, and which will be rejected. While many of the recommendations fall outside the constitutional powers of the executive branch — such as treaty ratification and legislative actions on the national, state, and local levels — the Obama administration should use its executive powers to their fullest extent to effectuate U.S. human rights obligations.

The U.S. record for implementing U.N. recommendations has thus far been very disappointing, but if President Obama really cares about his human rights legacy, he should direct his administration to adopt a plan of action with concrete benchmarks and effective implementation mechanisms that will ensure that the U.S. indeed learns from its shortcomings and genuinely seeks to create a more perfect union.

The world will be watching.

The report contained 348 recommendations that address myriad human rights violations in the United States.

If You’re Black or Brown and Ride a Bike in Tampa, Watch Out: Police Find That Suspicious

The Tampa Bay Times' recent disclosure that police are targeting Blacks who ride bicycles — including children as young as three years old — for dramatically high rates of stops and searches is the latest piece in the nationwide debate about racial profiling that has followed the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and countless others.

Communities across the country are connecting the deluge of incidents in which police use force against Blacks (or, as in Gray's case, show gross disregard for Black life) to everyday interactions in which police stop, frisk, and search Blacks and Latinos because of their race, rather than evidence of wrongdoing — a practice well-documented in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Ferguson. The latest reports from Tampa underscore just how little progress has been made in rooting out racial profiling and how the routine over policing of communities of color can lead to interactions that tragically devolve into the use of force.

The Tampa Bay Times reviewed 12 years of data on civil traffic citations in Hillsborough County, Florida, and discovered that the Tampa Police Department issues an astronomically high number of bike tickets, overwhelmingly to Blacks. From 20o3 to 2015, Tampa police wrote more than 10,000 bike tickets and issued 79 percent of them to Blacks — even though Blacks comprise only 26 percent of the Tampa population.

In the past three years, Tampa police wrote more bike tickets than the combined total number of tickets issued in four of the five largest Florida cities. Those targeted, the paper found, are concentrated in Tampa's poor Black communities.

Equally disturbing is the conduct that police are choosing to sanction, including the ticketing of children. ACLU review of the data shows that in 2014, Tampa police issued 70 tickets for "bike riding w/no hands" — all but three went to Blacks. During the 12-year period studied, at least 142 bike tickets were issued to kids aged 15 and under, including children as young as three. All but 9 of these children are Black or Hispanic.

Even when Tampa police ticketed older Blacks, the paper discovered troubling circumstances.  Alphonso Lee King was stopped by police and had his bicycle confiscated because the 56-year-old could not provide a receipt to prove the bike was his. These tickets come with serious consequences, including driver's license suspensions and reports to collection agencies when people — even children as young as 11 years old — cannot afford to pay. As the Department of Justice's investigative report on the Ferguson Police Department demonstrated, the indebtedness that comes from these hefty fines can shatter the lives of poor people, ensaring them in a cycle of indebtedness almost impossible to avoid.

Tampa's outgoing police chief claims that bike tickets are issued to people allegedly involved in criminal activity and that criminals now rely principally on bikes for transportation. These arguments are severely undercut by the Tampa Bay Times' finding that only 20 percent of the adults ticketed in 2014 were even arrested for criminal activity — usually a drug charge — in the course of the bike stop.

Tampa police should be less defensive and consider the data and stories in the context of today's debates about the over policing of communities of color and our national history of racial profiling. The city's police should also remember that it isn't the first department to come under scrutiny for disproportionately targeting Black people for bicycle stops.

In 2002, the ACLU of Michigan sued the Eastpointe Police Department for discrimination on behalf of 22 kids who had been stopped while riding bikes, questioned, and searched. Between 1995 and 1998, police had stopped more than 100 Black children aged 11 to 18 on their bikes, but only 40 white cyclists. Police had confiscated and auctioned off some of the plaintiffs' bicycles.

And why did police target Black kids on bikes in Eastpointe?

The lawsuit revealed that the city police chief had issued a memorandum that explicitly instructed police officers to investigate any Black youth riding through the city — damning evidence of race-based targeting without any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, which the Fourth Amendment requires. The case was ultimately settled after a federal court ruled that there was enough evidence of racial discrimination and illegal searches to take the case to a jury trial.

Even today, Tampa is not alone in reports that police are profiling Black kids on bicycles. Reports out of Fort Lauderdale and Boston also suggest a problem. Boston resident Modesto Sanchez was stopped and frisked as a teen when riding on a bike on his own street. The police officer explained, "People in your hood ride bikes to shoot people," and accused Sanchez of looking "suspicious."

Walter Scott and Freddie Gray died after initial interactions with the police over routine activity — such as driving a car with a broken taillight or making eye contact and then running away from bike cops — that escalated with tragic results. By heightening the likelihood that people of color will face a police interaction in the first place, racial profiling in any form — whether of pedestrians, bikers, or drivers — is one critical reason why people of color are more likely to become victims of police violence across America.

Thanks to data published by Hillsborough County, Tampa has information suggesting racialized policing that other cities lack. The mayor and incoming police chief of Tampa should view this data and community calls for reform as an opportunity to make positive changes — a chance to ensure that steps are taken before one tragic incident lights a fuse transforming Tampa into the next Ferguson or Baltimore.

The Tampa Police Department has agreed to let Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) review its program. But that is not enough. Neither the police nor COPS has made clear whether that review will include an investigation into racial profiling and civil rights violations — and that is what needs to happen.

The Tampa Police Department should also accept the invitation of civil rights groups and faith leaders to discuss bicycle enforcement and reforms to address racial disparities in policing. And it should stop issuing bicycle tickets until an investigation identifies the source of the problem, to prevent the needless issuance of tickets for minor infractions.

Tampa police disproportionately ticket minority bicycle riders in another example of racially biased policing in the US.

Matthew Shepard Was Brutally Murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. Last Night, the City Passed the First LGBT Nondiscrimination Ordinance in the State.

On October 6, 1998, two young men in Laramie, Wyoming, tricked University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard into thinking they would give him a ride home from the bar. Eighteen hours later, a cyclist found the gay student tied to a fence, beaten, burned, and comatose with a fractured skull. He initially mistook Shepard's limp frame for a scarecrow.

I revisit what happened to Matthew Shepard because the place where he died, forever since then associated with the savage violence and hatred LGBT Americans face, did something special last night. It made history by passing the first Wyoming nondiscrimination ordinance, with very little public opposition, to protect everyone from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, and access to public accommodations.

While the tragic incident shone the light on the intolerance and discrimination that the LGBT community faces and highlighted the critical need for civil rights protections for LGBT people across the country, Wyomingites have waited many years for legislation that protects our friends, our family, and our neighbors from discrimination. There are no statewide LGBT protections for those seeking employment, housing, or the opportunities to participate fully in their communities. It is only fitting that Laramie lead the way in Wyoming towards safety, dignity, and fairness for all. We will work now to pass similar laws in other cities, and we will continue working at the statewide level until we secure full protections for all Wyomingites.

Bria Frame and Will Welch (local organizers) and Melanie Vigil at the NDO vote. The ordinance passed on a 7-2 vote.

Bria Frame and Will Welch (local organizers) and Melanie Vigil at the NDO vote. The ordinance passed on a 7-2 vote. 

We already protect our neighbors from discrimination based on characteristics like race, sex, religion, national origin, and disability. It is time that we protect our neighbors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, too. It's a matter of simple fairness. These long overdue protections will ensure that no Laramie resident fears being turned away from a job, for housing, or by a business just because of who they are, and can live without fear of discrimination based on what their family looks like.

Laramie residents worked hard to get this piece of legislation passed. Local businesses signed pledges to support the ordinance. People had conversations with their friends and family, gathered stories of discrimination, and ultimately showed up to city council meetings to testify their support. Local of people of faith also testified that an ordinance protecting everyone from discrimination was consistent with both their faith and the larger community values.

Laramie's decision stands as a clear message that we reject hate and intolerance, and we hope the rest of the country learns from our message last night. Love and acceptance always wins in the end.

A place forever associated in the popular imagination with violent homophobia has embraced LGBT equality.

Cities and Towns in Arkansas Are Turning the Manure of an Anti-LGBT Law Into the Flowers of Equality

What a difference three months makes.

In February, the Arkansas legislature passed a law designed to prevent local governments from passing non-discrimination protections for LGBT people. The law, known as Act 137, is set to take effect this July. While it ostensibly bars all protections not covered under state law, as the bill's sponsor acknowledged, the purpose of the bill was to prevent ordinances like one that was passed last year in Fayetteville, but repealed by the voters, that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

When Act 137 passed, it felt like a truckload of horse manure had been dumped on humanity in Arkansas. But out of that manure, a field of flowers is growing. At the time Act 137 was introduced in the state legislature, not a single city in Arkansas had a non-discrimination ordinance that included protections for LGBT people.

Now civil rights protections are cropping up across the state.

When the legislature took aim at LGBT civil rights, it prompted communities across the state to stand up for equality like never before and, one by one, pass local LGBT protections. First came Eureka Springs. It passed an ordinance prohibiting all businesses from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which was upheld in a vote by the general public last night in a landslide victory.

Next came North Little Rock and Conway with  protections for LGBT city employees. Then Little Rock passed an ordinance barring discrimination against LGBT people in city services and by businesses that contract with the city. The night the Little Rock ordinance passed the city council, the city celebrated by illuminating its many bridges in rainbow colors.  Shortly after Little Rock, Hot Springs followed suit with an ordinance similar to Little Rock's. A similar ordinance is under consideration in Pulaski County, and other cities' officials are taking interest and note.

These cities are passing nondiscrimination protections because they want to send the message that they are welcoming communities for everyone. They know that it's good for business and that it helps a community thrive. As a city director of Little Rock put it:

"I think we're sending a message that we're a welcoming community, that we're diverse, that we realize that's good for business, [and] that we value all of our citizens."

This has been a watershed year in the movement for LGBT equality and not just in the fight for the freedom to marry. Communities across the country in the unlikeliest of places are standing up and saying no to efforts to entrench anti-LGBT discrimination in state law. For example, in Indiana, the mayor of the town of Elkhart introduced an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in reaction to the controversy over a state law to authorize religious-based discrimination. "We don't want the State's recent decisions to hamper our economy by sending discriminatory messages to those wanting to visit, live and do business in our great city," he explained.

Until opponents of equality learn that anti-LGBT legislation is backfiring, we will continue to use the manure they throw at us to grow more flowers.

After the legislature approved Act 137, communities are passing local non-discrimination ordinances to protect LGBT rights.

When Does Your Google Search Become a Crime?

Gilberto Valle typed many things into his Google search bar.

Where to buy the world's largest baking dish? How to properly tie a woman to a rotating life-size barbeque spit? "How to chloroform a girl"?

The questions Valle asked were bizarre, disturbing, misogynist, and, to many of us, unthinkable. But Valle thought them. He typed them. And he hit the "enter" button.

But in doing so, did he commit a crime?

The New York Police Department officer, crowned the "Cannibal Cop" by New York papers, is the subject of the new documentary "Thought Crimes," premiering this week on HBO. The film uses the lens of Valle's incredible story to peer into the world of online fetish and fantasy. It is disturbing, interesting, and even funny. (Full disclosure: I have a brief appearance as a talking head in the film.)

In short, the judge noted that fantasy alone cannot be a conspiracy.

After his day job as a cop, Valle came home every night and lived a second life online as a member of the "Vore" community. Vore — short for "Carnivore" — describes a fetish too disturbing for mainstream fiction or pornography, yet common enough to have a community of like-minded wannabe woman-eaters on the darker pages of the web.

Valle's (now ex-)wife, to her horror, discovered his online life and turned his web activity — his Google searches, his online Vore identity, his graphic cannibal fantasy chats — over to the NYPD. Valle instantly went from employee to suspect. He was indicted on federal charges of, among other things, conspiracy to commit kidnapping. The charge was based on his search history and the volumes of online chats with other men about kidnapping, raping, tying up, and roasting women to death.

And not just any women: real women. Real women Valle knew — his friends from school, and even his wife. He even abused his authority by looking up their names, street addresses, ages, and sizes in the NYPD's database. (He was separately convicted of misusing police resources.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the jury wasn't sympathetic to Valle's defense that his actions were nothing more than online role-playing. They voted to convict him. But the judge presiding over Valle's trial granted the defense's motion to set aside the jury verdict, holding Valle couldn't be found guilty for conspiracy to kidnap.

The judge, in a 100-plus page opinion, focused on the fact that over and over again Valle and his Vore contacts made plans to meet up to kidnap women — and the days for those plans came and went, time after time, with no real-world action. In short, the judge noted that fantasy alone cannot be a conspiracy.

The judge's ruling rightly highlights the problems with finding someone guilty of a "conspiracy" or an "attempt" to commit a crime when the evidence of a crime is nothing but words. It's one thing to use a Google search as evidence of intent or knowledge, when an actual crime has resulted and there's a real victim. But in the Cannibal Cop case, no women were hurt. No kidnapping plans were consummated. For Valle, the words were the crime. The online world was the conspiracy.

Valle's case is now before the federal appeals court, which is deciding whether to uphold the judge's determination that Valle committed no crime. The court heard oral argument in the case yesterday, where one judge asked the prosecutor on the case:

"You'd concede that trying to draw lines in this unbelievable collection of emails about what is fantasy and what's not is a difficult if not surreal exercise, wouldn't you?"

The documentary's director, Erin Carr, has said she was prompted to make "Thought Crimes" because she wanted to wrestle with thorny questions about online anonymity, the meaning of our online search history, and the line between fantasy and action. She deserves credit for taking such a sensational story and teasing out the bigger questions about how we behave online, and what it all means.

After all, you might be surprised to find out what you Googled last year, or five years ago. And while what you've typed into your search bar might not be as sensational as Valle's queries, it's not a bad idea to check out your Google search history — and delete it as you like. (As a free speech attorney, my own history is a virtual smorgasbord of sociopathy, since nothing is NSFW.) Or better yet, use a search engine that doesn’t track your searches. My colleague Jay Stanley has written a great guide to protect the privacy of your online inquiries.

Apparently, Valle himself was aware of how a review of his Google searches might read. Slate reporter Daniel Engber, whose constant and excellent coverage of the Valle trial first hooked Carr, reported that Valle had also read a Techdirt blog entitled "If You're Kidnapping Someone, Maybe Don't Search Google for Kidnapping." 

But what if you do, and no crime is committed and no one is hurt? Simple: That search is fully protected by the First Amendment.

Search engine searches, no matter how odious, are protected speech that cannot be used alone to convict you of a crime.