Thursday, July 31, 2008

FDA to Regulate Tobacco Industry?

Yesterday, the House of Representatives approved legislation that would grant authority to the Food and Drug Commission to regulate tobacco products. However, according to the New York Times, it appears as if any such legislation will be vetoed by the President.

Proponents of the legislation argue that granting the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products would aid in reducing teen smoking and health issues related to smoking. With this authority, the FDA will be able to regulate advertising and set guidelines on who can purchase these products and where.

Those opposing the legislation claim that this places too large of a burden on the FDA. The FDA would be responsible for approving all new tobacco products, taking away time from monitoring other products. Some even claim that, by having FDA approval, consumers will have the impression that these products are safe, when in fact there will still remain many of the health risks currently associated with tobacco products.

Surprisingly, tobacco companies are split in their support of this proposed regulation. Some companies claim that this legislation will require mergers, or closing, of companies as only large tobacco companies will be able to comply with any new standards and guidelines. However, other tobacco companies, both large and small, are fully behind this legislation.

As a non-smoker, it is easy for me to jump on the bandwagon and say that the tobacco industry definitely needs some regulation, and that the FDA is the agency to provide these regulations. While I do see that opponents of such legislation make some valid points, the potential benefits to be garnered from this legislation seem to outweigh many of these negatives. This legislation would still allow those who choose to use tobacco products the opportunity to do so, while attempting to minimize risks, to the extent possible, and hopefully reducing the number of underage smokers.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Barack Obama's Years at the University of Chicago Law School

The NYT published an interesting profile of Barack Obama’s years at the University of Chicago Law School in Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Apart. It chronicled the 12 years that he spent as a lecturer, offering classes on constitutional law, voting rights, and campaign finance law, and a seminar on racism. (Click here for statement regarding Barack Obama from the University of Chicago Law School website). Obama’s wife Michelle recently criticized the law school experience as narrowing instead of broadening one’s perspectives. (Click here to read the full interview). From everything that I read, it doesn’t appear that was the case in Barack Obama’s classroom.

From the article:

At a formal institution, Barack Obama was a loose presence, joking with students about their romantic prospects, using first names, referring to case law one moment and “The Godfather” the next. He was also an enigmatic one, often leaving fellow faculty members guessing about his precise views.

Of particular interest, the article includes links to a syllabus and several exams from his classes.

My hat is off to Obama for being offered a tenured position without meeting the University of Chicago’s strenuous tenure requirements. Chicago has a reputation of being a hardcore legal academic institution that doesn’t offer tenure lightly, particularly to a candidate who hasn’t published any legal scholarship. Given that Obama published nothing whatsoever and was offered tenure upon hire is feat indeed.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

House Passes Measures to Aid Housing Market

The New York Times reports this morning on proposed government measures that are aimed at helping the current housing market. The measures would help to ensure the continued existence of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and would provide measures that would allow borrowers to refinance their mortgages with government-insured loans. It is expected that President Bush will sign this legislation, “despite his opposition to the inclusion of nearly $4 billion in grants for local governments to buy and refurbish foreclosed properties”, as the need to reestablish faith in the housing market is seen as such a high priority.

Only forty-five Republicans voted favor of this legislation, a fact which some see as a attempted separation from President Bush in an attempt to ensure their re-election in November. However, the House Republicans stated that this was nothing more than a vote against a measure that “puts taxpayer money at risk while potentially bailing out irresponsible borrowers and greedy lenders.”

Some describe these measures as a major step in the government’s attempt to reestablish a balance in the housing market, some ranking this move in the same league as the creation of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created as part of the New Deal for many of the same reasons. However, as is the case in most legislation, there are many who are not convinced that this legislation will have the desired affect.

It is still unsure as to whether the existing downward trend in the housing market will actually be affected by these measures, and many raise concerns about the government stepping in to save Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when many had believed that the government would never spend taxpayer money for such a purpose. Other worries are raised in an Associated Press article; such worries include the fact that only first-time home buyers, whose income is under $75,000.00 ( $150,000.00 if married), who purchase a house between April 9, 2008 and July 1, 2009 will be able to take advantage of the tax breaks offered by the legislation. Even if they are able to take advantage of these tax breaks, such money will be paid back over a fifteen year span, albeit tax-free.

There seem to be a number of concerns that may cause these intended measures to fail. It appears as if the assistance provided to home buyers may be too narrowly tailored to help enough people, and/or it may be too late to turn around the housing market in the short time frame anticipated. Signs, unfortunately, point to failure for these measures, which causes even greater concern about the use of taxpayer money to bail out the two large mortgage companies; while it may be necessary to do so to steady mortgage interest rates, a slow to non-existent turn around in the housing market may require the government to expend more money than is economically appropriate or feasible.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Library Safety and Security, Part II: Practical Security Measures

(See Part I here)

When I look over my notes from last month’s Ohionet workshop on library safety and security, one sentence particularly stands out: “Address [improper] behavior regardless of contextual causes.” While our workshop leaders (Dave Ferimer and Robert Wood) made this suggestion with specific regard to child behavioral issues in a library, it’s just as valuable on a general scale as well. In every library, there are certain rules by which every patron needs to abide; making exceptions because of contextual factors isn’t a sound or safe policy. In this regard, a private law school library like Zimmerman should be no different than a public library branch like Dayton Metro.

Yet because Zimmerman and Dayton Metro are quite different types of libraries, do they always require the same approach towards bad behavior, even if they share the same principle against tolerating it? For example, many of the public librarians at the workshop were describing a fairly consistent struggle to maintain order in their environments. (Even for those not facing significant safety concerns, there were still maddening problems such as teenagers taking CDs into bathrooms and smashing them on the floor.) In comparison, aside from a couple of serious rules violations this year, most of the day-to-day problems at Zimmerman concern food and drink violations. Zimmerman also chooses to restrict patron access at certain times of the year, which obviously isn’t (and shouldn’t) be an option for public libraries.

Still, there are fair and practical security measures that both types of libraries can take without singling out any individual patrons or groups unfairly. Here are three examples that Officers Ferimer and Wood presented during the workshop:

--It helps to post a visible set of rules that 1) are clear and concise, 2) include a concrete consequence. One Ohio public library has a “code of conduct” that lists the following:

--“Disruptive behavior of any kind is not permitted.”
--“Library staff [members] have the authority to determine what is disruptive.”
--“Disruptive customers will be asked to leave library property.”

This code of conduct is quite clear and concise, and it lets patrons know exactly what will happen if they are disruptive. I also like the fact that the second point allows staff members some autonomy in defining whether or not someone is being disruptive. Staff members that feel empowered will likely correspond to a better library environment for everyone, which will in turn help staff morale. In Zimmerman’s case, it might be helpful if we had a better way of visibly conveying our food and drink policy to patrons and library students, along with listing a consequence or two (getting rid of the food/drink, leaving the library until has consumed food/drink).

-- If a patron refuses to leave the library after a staff member confronts them for breaking the rules, it technically constitutes a criminal trespassing violation. In order to have their local police department enforce violations like these, Akron-Summit County Public Library has an official form that they can serve to the patron. The form advises the patron that they are not allowed onto library premises (for either a set period of time or indefinitely), and that any further violations “may result in prosecution for the charge of criminal trespass!” This is a sound option for managing serious cases, and (to the best of my knowledge) would be helpful for both public and private libraries. Even with only two major rule violations in the past year, Zimmerman could have benefited from a trespassing form in one particular case.

--There was a lot of discussion at the workshop about managing, documenting, and resolving unacceptable behavior that becomes threatening or violent. Documentation can be particularly difficult because it’s easy to forget key descriptive elements—the person’s physical appearance, what they said, weapons, and any related activity—after a stressful situation. Accordingly, Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library has an online report form that allows its staff to input and submit a thorough description of major incidents. That is an excellent policy, and it’s something that I’m recommending that Zimmerman implements soon. Such a form doesn’t necessarily need to be online, but having a way of quickly documenting what happened provides a potentially vital security benefit, regardless of whether the library is public or private.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Red Cross Fails to Properly Screen Blood Donations

The New York Times Web site has an article this morning discussing current and persisting issues with the American Red Cross and their blood donation procedures. The article states that despite a total in fines of $21 million dollars in the past five years, the Red Cross has failed to implement measures to insure that donated blood is disease free.

The issues have apparently become so serious that the commissioner for the Red Cross attended a board meeting for the first time ever, warning “members that they could face criminal charges for their continued failure to bring about compliance.” The possibility of splitting off the blood services portion of the operations from the remainder of the organization has also been discussed; such a move would be similar to what the Canadian Red Cross has previously done.

According to the article, the major issues appear to be “shortcomings in screening donors for possible exposure to diseases; failures to spend enough time swabbing arms before inserting needles; failures to test for syphilis; and failures to discard deficient blood.” As some may expect, such failures have lead to diseases such as hepatitis, malaria and syphilis when performing blood donations using this blood; to date there appear to be no reports of transmission of HIV or hepatitis B through this blood, as the Red Cross does ensure that all blood are tested for what are considered the more serious diseases.

The Red Cross controls 47% of the nation’s blood supply and close to five million blood transfusions were performed in 2007. The Red Cross’, or any organizations’, failure to perform proper screening of blood donations could cause and apparently has caused unnecessary problems to the person receiving the blood. It is good to hear that the Red Cross is at least performing an adequate duty of screening for these more serious diseases that can be passed through tainted blood. Although it is implausible to think that every batch of diseased blood can be caught, the Red Cross needs to ensure that they take their success in screening for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and apply these measures in testing all donated blood for any type of infectious diseases in order to reduce these risks as much as possible.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

On-line Classes and the Cost of Gas

With the rising cost of gas, many businesses are seeing changes in consumer activities. Some are choosing more fuel efficient automobiles, while others are reducing their travel or overall spending. Educational institutions also appear to be noticing some changes in their consumers’ behavior. According to an Associated Press article, many colleges and universities are seeing an increase in those preferring to take classes on-line.

Prior to gas prices reaching $4.00/gallon and above, there was already an increasing number of students who preferred to enroll for on-line courses. However, with the latest surge in gas prices, administrators are seeing an even greater increase in enrollment in such courses. While the reasons for students choosing on-line over in person classes are usually not sought by these schools and universities, a clear link has been cited between the cost of fuel and this increase.

Students can enroll primarily in two categories of on-line classes. The first is what most think of when considering on-line coursework – the student logs into the class at their convenience, and communicate to professors through chat and e-mail. The other option mixes in person and on-line classes in that the student is required to log in at class time, and is able to communicate with others in the class via microphones and cameras.

This move towards on-line education is requiring professors to adapt to the new technology. In the article, it is stated that many professors are uncertain about the efficacy of these on-line classes. As would be expected, many of these professors would prefer to have their students live in their classroom, but current economic conditions do not always allow for this.

Computer technology has greatly increased the possibilities in our lives. They have created conveniences and cost-saving alternatives. However, with all new methods and technology, there are drawbacks. In the case of on-line education, one issue, at least when some exclusively on-line schools started popping up, is the fact that there is a risk of diploma mills. These “schools” would basically issue a degree for merely paying the tuition; no class work or learning was required. Many of these diploma mills were caught and shut down, but one would think that there is still a risk involved with similar schemes reoccurring. However, if students take these classes at reputable schools such as Villanova (mentioned in the article as providing such opportunities), these risks would be reduced.

Related to these fears of diploma mills is the fact that many businesses became wary of hiring students who attended these on-line schools. Even if students attend on-line classes at reputable schools, businesses, like professors, will need some time to adapt to the fact that more people are now choosing to attend school solely through the Internet. As this educational method becomes more widespread, it is hoped that the acceptance of students with degrees acquired through on-line coursework will be more easily accepted.

Finally, with taking classes solely on-line and communicating only through e-mail and chat, there is a loss of the close connection between the teacher and student. Some classes would seem to require such contact and not lend themselves as easily to on-line education. Some see college as a time to work with the peers you will eventually be entering the “real world” with, and sitting alone in front of the computer does not necessarily lend itself well to this networking and group work.

All this said, on-line learning definitely works at least in some situations and for certain categories of students. This educational method provides valuable knowledge to students while allowing them to reduce their costs of attending. The trick becomes how to offset the negatives listed above so that students will truly be able to take advantage of these positives.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Library Safety and Security, Part I: Dayton Metro Library and Patron Perception

I recently ran across a Daytonology post from earlier this year about Dayton Metro Library's high volume of homeless patrons at its main branch. The main library is right next to the heart of downtown, while Cooper Park is located directly behind the building. The park's usage has been a particular source of controversy over the past few years; it used to serve as a site for homeless feedings until the city banned them in 2005. Now, with only one daytime homeless shelter in Dayton, Cooper--along with the library--remain a relatively safe rest area for the homeless.

As for the complaints that the Daytonology reader and blogger express, I'm a bit torn. On one hand, they're expressing questions and frustrations that are familiar to other libraries. I attended an Ohionet workshop a couple of weeks ago entitled "Dealing with Unacceptable Behavior in the Library: Protecting Patrons and Staff." Our library has witnessed a couple of serious rule violations this year involving non-student patrons, and I figured that we needed to clarify some safety procedures for managing future problems. But working in a private library that predominantly serves law students must have sheltered me, because I was initially surprised at how almost all of the public librarians and staff at the workshop expressed concerns about pervasive problems that they face. Some of these problems (such as vastly inappropriate sexual and bodily activity) pose quite a threat to the role of their public libraries as safe and democratic spaces. Concerns about drugs, prostitution, and homelessness at Dayton's mail library--as well as how those activities may affect staff morale and patron accessibility--should be no different.

Yet on the other hand--and at the risk of remaining naive--I would still agree with some of the more skeptical comments to this post. I normally go to the Wilmington-Stroop branch that is closest to my apartment, but have been to the main branch enough times to know that the homeless most certainly have not "overrun" it. I would also want to know more information about drug activity (admittedly, a possibility) and prostitution (quite a stretch) directly from librarians and staff before making such claims. And even in the case of illegal activity, it's reprehensible to automatically assume or insinuate that the homeless are the root source of the problem. Yes, the presence of homeless people during the daytime may still raise questions concerning space and usage. But as one commenter rightly notes, "If there is outright illegal activity going on there, then the staff and security guards are perfectly within their rights to tell a perpetrator to hit the bricks. If someone is not being disruptive, however, [then] they have a public right to use the public library."

So we must face the reality that there are several safety and security issues that can adversely affect patron perception of the libraries that they use. But they--we--also have to avoid lazy generalizations and stereotyping that can cloud one's assessment of these issues. How is this possible? I'm certainly not an expert, but I want to explore this topic a bit further in my next post, considering both public libraries and university libraries like Zimmerman that are more limited in access.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Failure of DOJ to Disclose Fact May Alter Supreme Court Decision

In a rare move yesterday, the United States Justice Department has admitted an error in not informing the United States Supreme Court of a material fact that may have affected a pending case. The New York Times reports that the Justice Department’s failure to notify the Court of legislation that makes the rape of a child by a member of the military a capital offense caused Justice Kennedy to write an opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana that contained mistaken facts.

In the Supreme Court case, the constitutionality of the death penalty being applied to child rapists was challenged. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that such a penalty is improper. However, Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, set forth as part of the reasoning for this decision the fact that only six (6) states allow a person to be sentenced to death for such an offense. In addition, Justice Kennedy found that since child rape was not a capital offense under federal law, Louisiana’s imposition of the death penalty was unconstitutional.

However, prior to the ruling, Congress had set forth that, as far as the military is concerned, child rape is a capital offense. Additionally, President Bush issued an executive order which added child rape as a capital offense to the Manual for Courts-Martial. Government lawyers failed to inform the Supreme Court, whom they knew was hearing this challenge, that child rape, at least in some circumstance, was a capital offense under federal law, leading the Court to include this misstatement in its opinion.

The Solicitor General’s office did not file a brief with the Court, and none of the briefs filed by others brought this fact to the attention of the Court. After the opinion was issued, this error was pointed out on an individual’s military law blog, and then later by the New York Times. Until such time, it is presumed that the Supreme Court justices had no knowledge of their error.

Parties to a case can request a rehearing in front of the Supreme Court. With these new facts being brought to light, it would seem likely that Louisiana would ask for such a rehearing. If so, it remains uncertain as to whether any change in the ruling would be made. Additionally, there may be questions as to whether the addition of child rape to the list of military capital offenses is constitutional.

It seems interesting that such a seemingly major error was made in a case such as this. It is implausible to think that the Supreme Court has the time to stay up on every law and change Congress makes, but it seems that many were aware of the case docket and issues within the Department of Justice. To not inform the Court of such a material fact has most likely rendered a decision that would be different had the item been disclosed. Especially with the Court divided 5-4, all it would take would be for this information to sway one Justice for the decision to be reversed. Whether the decision is reversed or not, it is hoped that, at the least, the case be heard again and judged with all relevant facts being disclosed to the Court.