Thursday, December 3, 2009

NY Senate Denies Same Sex Marriage

Yesterday, same sex marriage rights were dealt a blow as the New York State Senate decisively rejected a bill that would have allowed such nuptials. Voting 38-to-24 against the bill, this denial of rights signals a political shift away from same sex marriage rights.

Prior to the vote, supporters of the bill felt they had anywhere from 26-35% of the Senators who would vote in favor of these rights. Senators considered “politically vulnerable” also voted against this bill. However, all Republicans voted against the Bill, as well as most members from upstate New York and Long Island. Support for the bill was primarily found to be from African American and female Senators, as well as from those representing New York City and Westchester County.

On the floor, all but one person speaking about the bill did so in attempts to have it approved. Aside from the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, who lobbied for the Bill’s defeat, most opponents of this bill “remained mostly silent”.

Republican supporters of the bill claimed that they had a deal with Democrats where only a handful of Republican votes for the bill would be required in order to ensure passage; however, when it became apparent the bill would not pass, even these supporters failed to vote for the bill’s passage. Some supporters of this bill claim that a number of Senators exhibited “political cowardice”; having stated support initially for the bill, they quickly changed their votes once it became evident the bill would not pass. It is claimed that this issue became too “politically freighted” for these Senators to support if they could avoid it.

Senators voting against the bill claim that the constituency is more worried currently about the economy and were not ready for a change in the definition of “marriage” at the present time. With the current economic condition, some feel that the majority of New Yorkers are too focused on employment and government issues to care enough about a same sex marriage bill. With this defeat, it is expected another such bill will not be viable until 2011 when a new Legislature takes office.

It is true that the economy and government spending are a huge concern to voters everywhere; but, approving same sex marriage affects neither of these areas. Same sex marriage in no way requires increases in government spending and does not affect the availability of employment.

Also, the vote being affected by “political cowardice” is troublesome. Senators have every right to change their vote up until the time it is actually cast, but to do so because they don’t think anybody else is going to vote with them Is problematic. If these Senators who expressed support for the Bill prior to the vote truly believed in same sex rights, then no amount of “peer pressure” should be sufficient to change their minds; if instead they gave support without actually meaning it, then there is the problem of trust and honesty of these politicians by their voters and other lobbying groups.

For the full article from the New York Times, click here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ohio's New Lethal Injection Policy

With the debate continuing regarding the cruelty and potential unconstitutionality of the current lethal injection procedure (a 3 drug “cocktail”), Ohio has become the first state to switch from the controversial “cocktail” to a single drug. Although state officials state that this change has little to nothing to do with the national debate, Ohio’s action may persuade other states to follow suit.

According to officials, this change in procedure is due to a failed effort in September to execute an inmate. The new procedure will call for the injection of anesthetic into the veins of the prisoner in an amount that should kill the person. If this does not work, or the veins of the inmate (as in the case of the failed execution in September) make the injection of anesthetic unsuitable, two drugs will then be injected directly into the prisoner’s muscles.

Terry J. Collins, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, has stated that “We figure we’re going to get sued whatever we do with the death penalty.” However, he claims that the new procedure, including the backup method, will be one that works. Additionally, by remaining with an intravenous method as the primary manner and switching to a single drug makes litigation and opposition from death penalty opponents less likely.

By retaining the intravenous method, Ohio officials are also implicitly saying that they don’t feel this method is cruel or unconstitutional. However, Ohio is one of few states that has a law which explicitly guarantees prisoners a quick and painless death; the use of the three drug “cocktail” did not always ensure such results as it had the potential to cause excruciating pain.

The United States Supreme Court has previously ruled that execution procedures similar to those previously used in Ohio were constitutional, as the method employed is not required to avoid all risk of pain. It is specifically Ohio law that “demands the avoidance of any unnecessary risk of pain and, as well, any unnecessary expectation by the condemned person that his execution may be agonizing or excruciatingly painful” which has helped lead to this change. As such, other states may not so readily follow Ohio’s lead in changing their death penalty procedures.

Still, change needs to start somewhere. With Ohio acting as a guinea pig for change, other states may eventually be encouraged to follow based on the success or failure Ohio has with these new procedures. Other states will be able to tinker with their procedures based on the results in Ohio in order to arrive at the most efficient and least cruel methods for execution. So, while changes nationwide may not occur overnight, hopefully Ohio’s first step towards reform will cause other states to rethink their procedures over time.

For the full article from the New York Times, click here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Life Imprisonment Without Parole for Minors

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments about whether sentencing minors to lifetime imprisonment without the possibility of parole violates the 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Two men who were convicted in Florida as minors argued that such a punishment is cruel and unusual.

Attorneys, in response to Justice Roberts’ inquiry as to where the 8th Amendment distinguishes based on age, argued that the Court in 2005 ruled it unconstitutional for any person under the age of 18 to be executed under the death penalty. Roberts seemed unconvinced however, answering that “death is different”. Still, those claiming violations of the 8th Amendment argued that the 2005 ruling not only ruled that “death is different”, but that minors are different as well.

Justice Kennedy echoed Justice Roberts concern in asking, “Why does a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope, but an adult does not?" To this, attorneys claimed that minors are not yet fully developed, and that they still have a chance to reform. Attorneys claimed that these minors should not be held to the same level of culpability as adults.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr., moving past the distinguishing characteristics of minors, claimed that this punishment was about retribution for serious crimes. Whether these crimes are perpetrated by adults or minors, the Justices claimed that society has a right to justice. Justice Alito went on to recall a number of offenses committed by minors that were "so horrible that [he] couldn't have imagined them if [he] hadn't actually seen them." He claims that such crimes should not be excused or the seriousness diminished, as well as the punishment, just because they were committed by minors.

The Justices still seem divided on this issue, making it all the more uncertain of the final outcome. Justice Ginsberg seems to agree with the attorneys representing the fact that minors are still developing and have a more likely chance to reform; Justice Sotomayor seemed troubled by the fact that there is no minimum age at which a minor could be imprisoned for life without an opportunity for parole.

As Justice Roberts pointed out in the case, “death is different”. But to imprison these people from the age of minority for the rest of their life with no chance of parole may be viewed as a quasi-death. To imprison these minors in such a way gives them no chance for a true future and also no reason to reform. Without the hope of an opportunity to one day be released, there is nothing for these minors to look or forward to or work towards.

Justices Scalia and Alito are also correct in that a large part of the justice system is about retribution for heinous crimes. Justice is one of the primary goals of our judicial system. However, one of the primary goals of the penal system is for reform. Minors imprisoned at the age of 13 are still developing and have a chance to reform; however, once again, without an opportunity for parole, they have no reason to seek reform, or even if they do they will achieve no benefit (other than internal) from such reformation. An opportunity for parole for these minors would provide them with hope, while still allowing a board to determine whether they have actually been reformed or not. By giving them this opportunity, it does not guarantee they will be paroled, but will reward those who truly have changed.

For the full article from the Washington Post, click here.

For more information on Sullivan v. Florida, click here.

For more information on Graham v. Florida, click here

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Extent of Prosecutorial Immunity

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the reach of prosecutorial immunity. The Court is being asked to decide whether prosecutors can be held liable for actions leading to wrongful imprisonment through coerced testimony and fail to provide all relevant facts.

In 1978, Curtis W. McGhee Jr. and Terry Harrington were convicted of murdering a security guard who had previously been a police officer in Council Bluffs. The prosecutors in the case, Joseph Hrvol and David Richter, relied heavily on the testimony of a 16-year old witness; however, this witness had originally identified other suspects and originally reported incorrectly to police on several key aspects of the crime.

In 2003, McGhee and Harrington were released from prison after it became known that the prosecutors failed to reveal the fact that they had initially identified another individual as the suspected murderer. The individual in question had actually been seen near the crime scene, with a weapon similar to that used in the crime, and failed a polygraph relating to the crime. McGhee and Harrington also alleged that prosecutors had coerced witnesses into giving false testimony. These witnesses later recanted their testimony regarding the crime.

Prosecutors claim they need unqualified immunity in order to ensure their ability to perform their job functions properly. Prosecutors claim that this immunity needs to apply to trial work, as well as work performed prior to charging a suspect. Without such immunity, there is a fear that prosecutors would constantly be sued by convicted criminals.

McGhee’s and Harrington’s lawyer argued it unfair that police officers could be held liable for their pretrial wrongdoings, but prosecutors could not be. He also argued it inconsistent that prosecutors only have limited liability for violating a suspect’s Constitutional rights before trial, but could not be sued for using any manufactured testimony in court.

Prosecutorial immunity makes great sense in most instances. Every time a prosecutor is successful in his or her case, they do not want to have to worry about being sued. They must be able to rely on witness testimony when presenting their cases, and should not be held accountable for any wrongdoing they have no place in procuring.

However, in this case, the argument is that the prosecutors were the ones who hid evidence and aided in creating false testimony. They did not present a witness in good faith that later turned out to be lying; instead, they proffered a witness who had provided incorrect facts and identified other suspects. They ignored this information and hid the facts of the other suspect from the prosecutors and allegedly coerced witnesses to testify against the two individuals who were wrongfully imprisoned. But for the actions of these prosecutors, these two individuals would most likely not have been convicted, or for that matter may not have been charged in the first place. In cases such as this, it is hard to see why these prosecutors should be granted prosecutorial immunity for acts they did not perform in good faith and the spirit of their positions.

For the full article from the Washington Post, click here.

For more information on the case of Pottawattamie County v. McGhee, click here.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The FBI and the Right of Privacy

In response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit, the FBI has recently made public its Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide. This document details the FBI’s interpretation of domestic intelligence-gathering rules which were relaxed under the Bush Administration.

In order to begin an investigation into a suspected terrorist, the initial requirements set forth under the FBI’s interpretation are rather low. This guide also allows for the use of ethnicity and/or religion to be used as a factor for determining persons of interest, as long as ethnicity and/or religion are not the only factors used. While information gathering may not be based on “arbitrary or groundless speculation,” the factual evidence required to start such an investigation is not clearly defined. The FBI claims that the flexibility provided by their interpretation is required in order to properly perform a proactive sweep for would-be terrorists residing within the United States.

If an investigation is commenced, the FBI can then send out “confidential informants to infiltrate organizations and following and photographing targets in public.” Even if nothing is found, the information gathered is then stored in the FBI databases. The FBI had the ability to perform such investigation previously regarding criminal activities, but greater justification was required to do so (at least prior to the FBI’s new interpretations).

Some are concerned that this broad interpretation interferes with citizens’ civil liberties, as the FBI’s interpretation allows them the “right to collect broad personal information about people they don’t even suspect of wrongdoing.” However, the FBI’s general counsel claims that this interpretation is not as threatening as some fear, and that civil liberties still will be protected; she claims that the FBI’s job is not to wait to investigate somebody until they perform some type of terrorist activity, but to ensure they don’t get a chance to do so at all.

The ability of the FBI, or any government agency, to collect data on its citizens for no more of a reason than basically a hunch is rather disturbing. While the FBI may deny it (or even prevent it in writing), this opens the door for profiling of citizens based on religion or ethnicity. The FBI has already used this new-found power to investigate whole Somali communities rather than just those people for whom they had prior information.

While the threat of future terrorist activity on United States soil is frightening, the government ‘s exploitation of this fear to expand their powers and reduce citizens’ rights is even more frightening. With this proactive approach and lack of properly defined guidelines, the FBI has the ability to gather information on almost anybody, and any data gathered, whether the person is found of wrongdoing or not, will be stored in the FBI’s database; with such procedures in place, many innocent citizens will have their right to privacy violated for no sufficient reason.

For the full article from the New York Times, click here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Animal Cruelty and the First Amendment

This week, the United States Supreme Court was asked to rule on the First Amendment as it relates to animal cruelty. In United States v. Stevens, the Court was asked “to reinstate a 10-year-old federal law that bans the production and sale of videos that show torture, mutilation and death of animals.” By reinstating this federal law, videos depicting such things as dog fighting and cock fighting; also, so-called “crush” videos would lose any First Amendment protections they may have once been covered by.

The last time the Court ruled that speech was found unredeeming of First Amendment protection was 25 years ago; in that instance, the Court ruled that child pornography was not protected speech under the First Amendment. After oral arguments on Tuesday, it does not seem likely that the Court will add videos of animal cruelty to this list of unprotected speech.

Supporting the reinstatement of this federal law are groups such as the Humane Society. Their claim is that the actions depicted are already deemed illegal under state and federal law, and as such depictions of these acts on video should also be illegal. Supporters of reinstating the law claim that the law will only illegalize speech depicting "the most extreme and unimaginable acts of cruelty,” and as such there "should be no safe harbor in the First Amendment for those who perpetrate them."

Those opposing the reinstatement of the law claim that the language of the law is too overbroad. It is feared that this language of this law can be read to extend to videos of hunting and bullfighting, as well as to any documentaries that may actually be discouraging cruelty to animals. With the language how it reads now, the decision of what is and isn’t protected by the First Amendment would have to be subjectively decided by the government.

Being a believer in the need for First Amendment protections, as well as an opponent to any form of animal cruelty, this case at first glance seems like one that would cause a conflict between the two beliefs. However, if the language of the law is in fact so broad that it could allow the government to ban videos in which the message is to prevent animal cruelty, then it seems as if this law is not the proper answer to disallowing said videos.

There are already laws against dog fighting, cock fighting and cruelty to animals. To take the next step to ban videos of this, while admirable, apparently does more than it is intended to. At the same time, it is not the government’s job to be the morality police of its citizens, especially at the expense of limiting Constitutional rights. Cruelty to animals is not the same as child pornography, and does not require the same level of government aid to prevent. It is sad what is happening to these animals in these videos, and it is also illegal (at least in the United States); still, to overly limit First Amendment protection violates the Constitutional rights of citizens and as such it would seem appropriate in this case that the law not be reinstated as is currently written.

For the article from the Washington Post, click here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The 2nd Amendment and the States

The United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear challenges to handgun laws in Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois. The Supreme Court last year ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the 2nd Amendment provides for handgun ownership in relation to the “federal government and federal enclaves such as Washington. “ In hearing these challenges to gun laws in Illinois, the Supreme Court will rule on state and local laws and whether these laws are constitutional in regards to the 2nd Amendment.

According to Alan Gura, the lawyer who filed the challenges, the laws in question is “identical” to the law that was challenged in Heller. “Gura hopes for a ‘definitive ruling’ on Chicago's restrictions and said he thinks that at a minimum the court would strike the same kind of handgun ban it found objectionable in Washington. “

Gun-control advocates show little concern for whether the laws in question are found unconstitutional. Even though many expect the Court to find that the Second Amendment applies to states and municipalities, gun-control advocates remain confident that, as in Heller, the application of the 2nd Amendment as applied to states will be narrowed to limit guns in the home for self-defense purposes.

The decision in Heller was split 5-4 last year. For the minority, the more liberal judges argued that the 2nd Amendment only guaranteed the right to bear arms to maintain groups such as militias. Still, many expect the five Justices from the majority to prevail once again, which may lead to challenges to state gun laws. Such challenges are expected to include challenges to such things as: gun registration; storage requirements; where guns may be carried; and, how (i.e. concealed or not) weapons may be carried.

Once again, it will be interesting to view how the Justices interpret and apply the 2nd Amendment in this case. Perhaps one of the most divisive and debated Amendments, the Supreme Court finally has a chance to make “definitive ruling” on the matter. However, even if such a ruling is handed down, it appears that arguments as to related issues will only get started.

For the full article from the Washington Post, click here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) has received a lot of negative press lately for not providing free public access to federal court docket information. Well, that isn’t true anymore . . . anyone with Internet access can now retrieve Pacer dockets 100% free from Courtport, LLC.

With the announcement of RECAP last Friday, Courtport, LLC opted to announce today the launch of its free federal court docket retrieval site, Free Court Dockets.

What's the difference between RECAP and Free Court Dockets?

The difference is simple -- RECAP is a plug-in for the Firefox web browser that makes it easier for users to share documents they have purchased from PACER, the court's pay-to-play access system. With the plug-in installed, users still have to pay each time they use PACER, but whenever they do retrieve a PACER document, RECAP automatically donates a copy of that document to a public repository hosted at the Internet Archive; however, with Free Court Dockets, the user bypasses PACER entirely and hass access to full court dockets from any U.S. district civil, criminal, or bankruptcy court, as well as from the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Claims, and the U.S. Court of International Trade.

For full details about Free Court Dockets, please read the press release here.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

RECAP: A New & Better way to access Public Court Records

So, what is RECAP? RECAP is a free extension for Firefox that improves the experience of using PACER, the electronic public access system for the U.S. Federal District and Bankruptcy Courts. It helps you give back by contributing to a public archive hosted by the Internet Archive. It also saves you money by showing you when free documents are available.

When a RECAP user purchases a document from PACER, the RECAP extension helps her automatically send a copy of that document to the RECAP archive. And RECAP saves its users money by notifying them when documents they’re searching for are already available for free from the public archive.

Whos is behind RECAP? RECAP is a project of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. It was developed by Harlan Yu, Steve Schultze, and Timothy B. Lee, under the supervision of Prof. Ed Felten.

There is a video on the RECAP website that provides a quick demonstration of RECAP in action, and RECAP is currently looking for beta testers. If you are interested, check out their privacy policy and then head to the installation page to get started.

I think that RECAP is inspired! It is a great way to open up public court records that would otherwise be unavailable because of the PACER “pay to play” restrictions. Everyone should have access to public records.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Continuing Developments in Same-Sex Marriage Rights

In the past week supporters of same-sex marriage have experienced two victories – each unique in their own way. Last week, an Iowa court ruled that same-sex marriage was permissible in the state. On Tuesday of this week, the Vermont Legislature passed a Bill allowing same-sex marriage.

Many were surprised by the ruling in Iowa, as the issue was not as showcased as it had been in other states. While many focused on California’s Proposition 8 and New York’s consideration of same-sex marriage rights, Iowa’s court entered a judgment addressing this issue.

In Vermont, the Governor Jim Douglas had vetoed a Bill permitting same-sex marriage in the state. On Tuesday, the State Legislature overrode this veto to become the first state to allow same-sex marriage by statute rather than by court decision.

Supporters of same-sex marriage are hoping that these recent developments spur action in other states. At present, New York, New Jersey, Maine and New Hampshire have same-sex marriage proposals are receiving support from the legislature. With Vermont having taken this step, many hope that these states will do the same.

For the full article, click here.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Text Patterns and Culture 11

--I've been reading through the archives of Alan Jacobs' excellent reading/writing/technology blog Text Patterns the last few days, and a couple of entries stand out. In December, Jacobs--responding to an essay from New York Times reporter David Streitfeld--raised questions about blaming online used book sales for the publishing industry's current woes:

"Seriously? Are there that many people buying used books online? I suppose it’s possible, but my own experience wouldn't suggest that that market is huge. But then, a lot of used book sales are done via Amazon, and no one really knows how well Amazon is doing. Maybe Streitfeld is right and used-books-via-Amazon-and-eBay constitute a major threat to the whole publishing industry. But I have my doubts."

Without any sort of reliable data, it's difficult to tell how much the used-book market has really affected publishers as a whole. And that factor, I think, should be enough to currently prevent any scapegoating of people who buy used books (which is what Streitfeld does). It's also a bit oversimplistic to dismiss the recession and general readership declines as probable causes, even though in would be helpful to have hard data for these areas as well.

More recently, Jacobs has provided--and linked to--solid analysis of the Kindle. "a dialogue" (both the post and accompanying comments) reiterate familiar but still quite valid drawbacks to the Kindle's proprietary format. Conversely, John Siracusa's essay on e-books (found in "linkages") is excellent, and presents a pretty compelling case for why e-books will eventually win over consumers, even if the Kindle eventually fizzles.

--Culture 11 was the original host for Text Patterns, but it became defunct in January after exiting less than six months. As Charles Homans wries in his article on the website's rise and fall, its goal was to serve as "a place where social conservatives could talk about culture—a safe zone between the purely political critiques of the conservative media and the secular liberal criticism that dominated the mainstream media..." The concept that Cultural 11 writer Conor Friedersdorf had of providing narrative-based reporting from a conservative angle--with Tom Wolfe as an emulative example--is what I think could have been most appealing. Besides Wolfe, Joan Didion and Garry Wills emerged during the New Journalism period as conservative writers who were remarkably sharp social commentators, and who were willing to commonly deviate from conservative policies. Having recently dipped into Didion and Wills' work as a self-identified liberal, I can see why liberals and conservatives alike have found them compelling. There certainly should be a place today for conservative long-form journalism that doesn't resort to predictable positions and arguments.

Homans suggests that Culture 11's brief lifespan exhibits how conservatives have, since Nixon's "silent majority," continued "to simply wall off the parts of society that they didn’t like or understand, secure in the belief that there were more people on their side of the wall." That's a reasonable explanation, though I think commenters at The American Scene also have a valid point about the website containing a sustainable idea within an unsustainable business model. Regardless, Culture 11 simply wasn't around long enough to fully test its hypothesis that free-thinking, creative journalism could find a home in contemporary conservatism.

Friday, March 27, 2009

From Ohio Citizen Action:

I'm delighted to report on a major development in the battle to end mountaintop removal coal mining. On Tuesday, the Obama Administration announced the first step toward a crackdown on mountaintop removal permits. The Army Corps of Engineers had been poised to approve scores of new mountaintop removal projects, and this announcement put the brakes on. Credit for this goes to thousands of Ohio Citizen Action members and others in Appalachia and elsewhere who have fought doggedly for years, and of course, to President Obama.

Our work is not done though. Coal companies have already leveled over 500 mountains and, under current permits, are detonating dynamite charges every day to level more. They are not going to stop voluntarily. Though Obama's action yesterday was a good first step, it is not the ban on mountaintop removal we need.

For more on this campaign, please visit Ohio Citizen Action.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Live Blogging in the Courtroom

Last week, Campbell County Circuit Court Judge Julie Reinhardt Ward issued an order preventing anybody from bringing electronic devices into the courtroom. While this in itself is not unique, the fact that one of the Judge’s aims in issuing this order was to prevent live blogging from the courtroom is. Due to this order, several news outlets challenged this ruling in the Kentucky Court of Appeals; this may be the first time the issue of live blogging within a Kentucky courtroom has been the subject of such an appeal, and as such this ruling may set a precedent for how other Kentucky courts deal with the issue in the future.

In both Ohio and Kentucky, judges are permitted to set the rules for their courtrooms as to what people can and cannot bring to an active trial. Most judges appear to be concerned about distractions that may be caused by cameras, gum chewing and other items that may take the jury’s attention away from the trial. In federal courtrooms, electronic devices cannot be brought past their security checkpoint at the entrance to the building.

Due to the immediacy of courtroom blogging, some judges are worried that a witness’ testimony could be tainted based on what they read on-line. Judge Ward stated she was also worried about these blogs tainting the jury, even though jury members are prohibited from watching media coverage. In order to prevent such influence, she placed the ban on live blogging in order to allow only portions of the testimony to be shown.

Over a decade ago, courts showed similar resistance to the broadcast of live trials on stations such as Court TV. At first, especially after the O.J. Simpson trial, courts were reluctant to allow television cameras into their courtroom. Outside of a few states, these cameras are very rarely banned today. According to a former senior on-air correspondent, “Ohio and Kentucky courts have been easy to deal with.”

Blogging in the courtroom is a relatively new aspect of reporting. As such, there are no set rules stating what can and cannot be blogged. Because of this lack of guidelines, it is most likely that judges are overprotecting to ensure the jury and witnesses are not improperly influenced. Until such rules are set, it seems to be in the best interest of ensuring justice and avoiding improper influence that judges do this. With this being said, it is more than likely that, just like Court TV cameras in the courtroom, live blogging will become commonplace at future trials. Although the media outlets lost their appeal in this case, it is my belief that once a balance is worked out between interests of justice and the availability of information, live blogging will serve as a valuable tool for those wishing to find trial information easily and efficiently.

For the article from the Cincinnati Enquirer, click here.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Shaman Drum Bookshop and the Realities of Market Changes

Last month, a friend of mine who lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan sent along this Chronicle column by Karl Pohrt, owner of the local Shaman Drum Bookshop. His profile of his store's "steep financial decline" is a depressing on a personal level. As a graduate student in popular culture studies at Bowling Green State, I made the seventy-mile trip up to Ann Arbor fairly frequently, and Shaman Drum was always one of my favorite stops. Pohrt's description--"a first-rate browsing store for books in the humanities in the university neighborhood"--is accurate. I consistently came across academic titles in cultural studies and ethnomusicology that would have been extremely difficult to find in most other bookstores. It was always pleasurable and surprising to scan their shelves.

Shaman Drum's concentration on academic humanities titles certainly has its drawbacks, even during better times. After some reflection, I can't say that I'm terribly surprised at the number of local commenters who describe having "never really felt welcomed," "uncomfortable," etc. I don't personally remember ever having unfriendly exchanges with their staff, but the store (if you'll pardon the pun) does march to a different drumbeat. Its setup is wonderful for browsing, but many shoppers probably aren't going to experience the same "finds" that they might at, say, the flagship Borders (which is just around the corner). In this regard, Shaman Drum benefits from its surrounding environment--a top public university nearby, several high-quality bookstores located in the same district, and the liberal, scholarly climate of Ann Arbor. It has had the luxury to cater to a fairly specific target market.

Of course, it was much easier for Shaman Drum to specialize when textbook sales were robust, and Pohrt's laments about the University of Michigan's new online textbook listing policies is understandable. At the same time, I have to agree with commenter Jim Canty's post on textbook purchasing in person. The traditional system of buying textbooks through stores is, on the whole, an acutely unpleasant experience, and one where students are typically at a financial disadvantage, whether they are buying or selling. And, as Canty alludes, Pohrt's theoretical argument--that brick-and-mortar bookstores offer the "intangible value" or browsing and talking with informed staff--is important, but simply doesn't hold water when it comes to textbook sales. I'd love to talk to a student that treasures the "intangible value" of a textbook store while standing in long lines and often paying to much for used books of questionable quality.

Nevertheless, Pohrt's right in that there aren't really "villians" responsible for changes in the textbook market. It's simply the same shift that's occurring with regard to general book sales, and working out a solution that leaves Shaman Drum anywhere near financial solvency will be extremely difficult. Despite disagreeing with him on the textbook issue, it'll be a sad day if his store closes, so I found his column to be a downer. The column is well worth reading, though, and the commenters offer thoughful opinions on a host of related issues, including Pohrt's current efforts to classify Shaman Drum as a non-profit organization.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hearing on California's Proposition 8 Today

Today, the California Supreme Court will be hearing arguments on the validity of Proposition 8. Proposition 8, overturning a previous ruling that same sex marriages were legal in the state, was approved by voters in the November, 2008 election. Today, the California Supreme Court will begin consideration of the validity of the measure, which will in the end determine the validity of same sex marriages within the state.

Of primary concern in determining the validity of Proposition 8 is determining whether this measure improperly amended a constitutional amendment. Should the Court determine Proposition 8 constitutes a proper revision to the state constitution, which apparently many experts believe will be the case, the Court will then have to determine the validity of previously performed same sex marriages during the time period when such marriages were legal. Many feel that the Court will uphold Proposition 8, as well as the existing same sex marriages.

Opponents of Proposition 8 contend that this measure improperly amends the state constitution by means other than what is provided in the constitution itself. The Attorney General is contending that Proposition 8 “eliminates an inalienable right without compelling reasons.”

Supporters of Proposition 8 “have threatened a campaign to remove justices who vote to overturn the measure.” If Proposition 8 is upheld, gay right activists will most likely seek to add a measure to the 2010 ballot to reconsider gay marriage.

The original ruling had a slight majority, 4 to 3, determining that same sex marriages were legal in California. Should the supporters of Proposition 8 be able to swing a single justice’s vote, Proposition 8 will be declared valid and same sex marriage will once again be illegal in the state of California.

This topic has been written about quite a bit, including blog postings on this site when the measure was initially passed. As stated here, it is good to see that Americans have started accepting some forms of change, but the continued opposition to same sex marriage makes one question how truly open we as a society are. As the California Attorney General is expected to contend, marriage is one of the inalienable rights granted to the American people; to eliminate this right merely because the people desiring to marry are of the same sex does not seem a valid enough reason to prevent them from doing so. By denying these inalienable rights to certain groups of people, America is showing a tendency to cling on to the past rather than openness to change and the future.

To read the entire article, click here.

The arguments will be streamed here from 9:00 A.M. until noon Pacific on March 5, 2009.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Court Rules on Religious Displays in Public Parks

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a public park in Utah need not provide space for a religious monument reflecting the Summum religion. The case, Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, was brought due to the fact that members of the Summum religion wished to display a monument reflecting their religious beliefs; said monument would be in direct contrast to the park’s current monument displaying the Ten Commandments.

This case was brought under a First Amendment claim. However, unlike most cases dealing with religion, this case was brought under the freedom of speech clause rather than the freedom of religion clause. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, stated that the religious monuments in cases such as this are “best viewed as a form of government speech.” Justice Alito concluded that the Summum church’s First Amendment right to the freedom of speech was not violated, as the government has the right to choose what it wishes to say, and similarly what it wishes not to say.

Although this was a unanimous opinion, six of the Justices wrote concurrences which offered alternate viewpoints than that written by Justice Alito. One of the issues which concerned the other Justices is the apparent creation of government language which is not subject to First Amendment review. The Justices also differed in their opinions as to whether the Summum church could bring another challenge under the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment.

Like many of the concurring judges, this decision is also bothersome to me as it does expand a government’s ability to seemingly bypass any First Amendment review. By merely calling a display a form of “government speech”, it would seem that a city would obtain support from this decision to prevent any monuments or displays that contradict the religious message of those in charge of the local government.

Also of issue is the seemingly blurred line of church and state. While the Supreme Court decision seems to argue that a monument to the Ten Commandments can be seen outside of a religious perspective, it is hard to be persuaded that these tablets, a very religious icon, can be seen any other way. To say then that a city can choose what qualifies as “government speech”, and such “government speech” seems to be tied to these religious displays, would seem to cross the line of the separation of these two institutions.

For the full article from the New York Times, click here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The President's Mortgage Modification Plan

Yesterday, President Barack Obama revealed what would amount to be “the largest federal foreclosure-prevention package in decades”. The plan would allocate more than $75 billion in aims of assisting U.S. home buyers in obtaining “more affordable mortgage terms.” The President’s plan would allow homeowners with little equity in their houses to refinance their mortgages, allocate funds to keeping a large number of homeowners out of foreclosure, and increase government funding of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The President assures that this program "will not rescue the unscrupulous or irresponsible by throwing good taxpayer money after bad loans." It will allow homeowners to refinance “at a time of historically low mortgage rates” “as long as their mortgage does not exceed 105 percent of the current value of their property.” The program would also create financial incentives for lending institutions to lower required payments, attempting to make the mortgage aspect more financially attractive than foreclosure.

As expected, many have come out with criticism of this plan. Many bring up the issue of how second mortgages will be affected and handled through this program. Also, many feel that for most lending institutions, any participation in this program would be purely voluntary. Although Bankruptcy Court judges will be permitted to lower the principal of the mortgage to that of the current market value of the property, the lending institutions will not be required do modify mortgages in this way. Other issues of concern include mortgages being sold into securitized pools and the focus on owner-occupied housing with little to no mention of investor owned property.

It is hoped that offering financial incentives to lending institutions would be sufficient to have them voluntarily work with borrowers, but anytime something is voluntary there is a chance that somebody will not participate. At the same time, the President cannot force banks to comply as that is beyond the scope of his power. I would suspect that allowing Bankruptcy Court judges to modify the principal of the mortgage loan would bring up similar issues of the court exceeding its power. With these issues, and the unresolved issues mentioned above, it is hoped that the criticism levied against this plan will be used constructively to shape a plan that will assist distressed homeowners as planned.

For the full article from the Washington Post, click here.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

An Alternate Take on Evolution in the Classroom

Paul's post from Thursday on Darwin's birthday and classroom approaches to evolution raises a lot of hot-button topics: public opinion on evolution; continuing battles over scientific curricula in public schools (and the freedom of speech/religion implications that are involved); and the relationship between faith and reason. None of these topics are areas of strength for me, but I want to generally discuss my thoughts and where I differ from Paul.

When we think of the phrase "culture wars," the two political issues most likely to come to mind are abortion and gay marriage. There's a good reason for that, considering the energy, finances, and polarization surrounding both issues; Proposition 8 in California continues to provide a strong example. Yet we often overlook public opinion on evolution as a significant part of the culture wars, which is a huge mistake. Paul cites recent Gallup and Pew Research Center polls where more than 40% of Americans favor creationism, which Gallup defines as agreement with the statement "God created human beings pretty much in the present form." The Pew Research Center indicates that these numbers (according to Gallup) have remained consistent for over the last quarter-century.

Historian Paul Harvey notes that "America has a very peculiar history with the idea of evolution," and public doubt about the validity of evolution is nothing new. But such strong poll numbers in favor of creationism--which also holds that the earth is no more that 10,000 years old or so--remains remarkable. In his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, historian Mark Noll identifies that evangelicals have been responsible for the rise of creationism since 1960, and that their efforts resulted in "one of the great innovations of recent evangelical history." Noll argues that after the 1961 publication of the seminal creationist text The Genesis Flood, evangelicals capitalized on several factors--including, most notably, the belief in a "simple" or "literal" reading of Scripture--to create a groundswell of support for the doctrine. Historian Ronald Numbers elaborates that by the late 1970s, creationist political advocates adopted the strategy of arguing for a "two-model" approach in public classrooms, one that would provide a "balanced approach" towards both evolution and creationism.

Though the Supreme Court banned such "equal time" efforts in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), creationists turned to the burgeoning intelligence design (ID) movement to advance their causes. Though prominent ID supporters such as Michael Behe have attempted to distinguish their work from creationism, evidence demonstrates that the two doctrines are intertwined. One example emerged in the hearings during Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), which centered on the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania's attempts to mandate the teaching of intelligence design in its ninth-grade biology curriculum. The textbook that the school board chose for its biology classrooms, Of Pandas and People, was the first pro-ID pedagogical text of its kind. Yet the Of Pandas authors (Dean H. Kenyon and Percival Davis) "had originally conceived their book as a scientific brief for creationism," according to Numbers. Moreover, the plantiffs in Kitzmiller discovered that after the Supreme Court ruling in Edwards, Percival and Davis replaced the term "creationists" with "design proponents" throughout the book. An error in one of the newer drafts--"cdesign proponentsists"--became a key piece of evidence that helped lead to the ruling against Dover's school board.

Nevertheless, Numbers writes that the ID movement's " 'wedge' strategy"--as they exhibited in Kitzmiller--has "succeeded beyond all but their own expectations in convincing the public and press that a serious scientific controversy existed about the status of Darwinism." And journalist Laurie Lebo documents that it is this strategy that lies at the heart of Louisiana's recent "academic freedom" bill. The bill (and its use of the term "strengths and weaknesses") implies a "controversy" where there is none, scientifically speaking, and is intended to deceptively disguise the promotion of a religiously motivated and unscientific doctrine as a freedom of speech issue. This is where I would disagree with Paul. It's reasonable to expect classroom debates to exist along the lines of what Amy Harmon profiles for the New York Times from last August, where students grapple with understanding and accepting evolution. But when we legally claim that teachers are exercising academic freedom by officially debating evolution's "strengths and weaknesses" as part of a science curriculum, we are opening the door to violating church/state separation, bearing in mind that the current "alternatives" to evolution are explicitly religious in origin.

Besides its legal implications, I'll admit that this issue is a personal one for religious reasons. As a teenage member of a conservative Methodist church, I remember watching a video during our youth meeting on evolution. The video dramatized a scenario where, upon hearing her science teacher present the case for human evolution, a girl runs out of the classroom, protesting that she didn't believe in such a thing. The message was clear: Christian belief and evolution were antithetical to each other. Not caring enough to seriously challenge this view, I became a supporter of creationism, and wondered at points if humans and dinosaurs co-existed together. It took many years--and a shifting of viewpoints on several other topics--before I really accepted that theism and evolution, faith and reason, could co-exist together.

My story is hardly unique, of course; determining the relationship between faith and reason when it comes to evolution is a common difficulty for religious believers, and especially so for those from theologically conservative backgrounds. Creationism and ID, however, oversimplify this process to an "either/or" decision, where one must choose to be either on God's side or the side of secularism. Without going into a lengthy theological argument, this demonstrates bad faith as well as being unscientific. Noll is particularly unsparing on this point, bluntly stating that creationism has obscured clear thinking about "human origins, the age of the earth, and mechanisms of geological or biological change." As he elaborates, "... if the consensus of modern scientists, who devote their lives to looking at the data of the physical world, is that humans have existed on the planet for a very long time, it is foolish for biblical interpreters to say that 'the Bible teaches' the recent creation of human beings."

Across the nation, young high school students are sitting in introductory biology classes, encountering evolution for what may be--or is likely--the first time. From a legal standpoint, these students have the right to hear scientific truth from their teachers, to learn in an environment that is absent of religious motivations. From a religious standpoint, they deserve better outside-of-class help in determining how evolution will fit into their faith backgrounds than from reductionist and dishonest doctrines.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Celebrating Darwin

Today marks the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, famous for this theory of evolution. In celebration of Darwin’s birthday, people throughout the globe are celebrating Darwin Day, “a global celebration of science and reason”.

However, as most are aware, not all agree with Darwin’s theories and the teaching of evolution has continued to be a hotly debated issue in schools throughout the United States. According to a recent poll, 40% of Americans discredit evolution and instead cling to a belief in creationism. Scientists claim that there is no merit to these claims, and instead choose to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, which they claim has the scientific backing creationism lacks. As such, issues often arise as to which a teacher is permitted to present in their classroom.

In 2005, US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that intelligent design (creationism re-designated as to avoid religious connotations) is not science and therefore cannot be taught in public schools. However, last year, Louisiana passed what they term an “academic freedom” law. This law protects the teachers’ freedom of speech by allowing them to “discuss the ‘scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses’ of issues such as evolution.” Recently, bills have been introduced in Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, and New Mexico; similar bills have already failed in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina.

As a pure freedom of speech issue, I wholeheartedly agree with states attempting to protect such rights by allowing for classroom debates of evolution and creationism/intelligent design. Unfortunately, this topic also broaches the topic of the separation of church and state and directly affects how children are being taught and molded. In private schools, it is expected that students will be exposed to the topic of religion. However, as the Pennsylvania Court ruled, religion cannot be taught in public schools, and intelligent design certainly seems to approach religious teaching.

By Louisiana wording their law allowing teachers to “discuss the ‘scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses’ of issues such as evolution”, the state seems to create an ideal solution as long as the subject of God or religion does not come into play. All scientific principles are open for debate in scientific terms, and evolution is certainly not immune from this debate. Such open communication in classrooms would allow for different viewpoints to be expressed and allow for the furthering of a scientific education. In such debates, people could truly celebrate science and reason, which is exactly what Darwin Day is suppose to further. Unfortunately, other states at this point have not agreed with this viewpoint.

For the complete article, click here.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Considering The Long Civil Rights Movement and "Praying Away the Gay"

There is quite a bit to ponder from Joseph Crespino's excellent study In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution, which I recently finished reading. Crespino, an associate professor of history at Emory University, argues that Mississippi did not simply provide "massive resistance" against the civil rights movement, as we often believe. Instead, as he writes:

"...despite segregationist' popular pledges that they would never submit to racial integration, white leaders in the state initiated a subtle and strategic accomodation to the demands of civil rights activists and the federal government, one that helped preserve the priorities of white elits and that put Mississippians in a position to contribute to a broad conservative countermovement against the liberal triumphs of the 1960s" (4).

Crespino notes in his conclusion that there are several implications to this argument. One of the implications that stood out to me was how we should think about the time span of the civil rights movement. Just as it's easy for us to imagine Mississippi as being what he calls a "closed society" (one that was more racist that anywhere else in the U.S.), it's also easy to imagine that the struggle for civil rights ended in the 1960s, when segregationists in the South lost their fight against the Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education. Yet Crespino makes a case for " 'the long civil rights movement,' " a term he quotes from fellow historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. In documenting Mississippi's racially charged "battles over access to schools, jobs, and political power" during the 1970s and 1980s, he argues that those battles "flowed directly out of civil rights battles of earlier decades" (276).

Crespino provides a good example of the long civil rights movement in his November 2007 article about President Ronald Reagan's infamous campaign visit to the Neshoba County fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The article responds to an argument between New York Times columnists David Brooks and Paul Krugman over the racial meaning of "states' rights," a term that Reagan used in the speech he gave at the fair. While Crespino criticizes Krugman for generally oversimplifying the role of racism in conservative politics, he also finds that Brooks' defense of Reagan is unwarranted. As he finds, "Reagan was content to let southern Republicans link him to segregationist politics in the South’s recent past." The reference to "states' rights" was a clear signal of support to Mississippi conservatives who had resented federal efforts to bring about school desegregation and biracial poverty programs in their state. To this constituency, the battle over political control of their state--and the civil rights that consequently remained at stake--was quite alive and well.

Admittedly, this is a very watered-down take on a complex argument, but Crespino's book and the above article are well worth reading.

--In her review of the Lifetime television movie Prayers for Bobby, Tanya Erzen (an assistant professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University) finds fault with the movie's good intentions:

"The film hews to the conventions of Lifetime, in which tragedy inevitably leads to personal growth. There are archetypal characters: the jock brother who makes gay jokes, the sinister psychiatrist, the judgmental minister from the Griffith’s church, and the sympathetic gay man with whom Bobby shares a drink at a dance club. It is a film designed to teach us a lesson about religious intolerance, but in doing so it reproduces the unspoken rules for rendering gay people sympathetic or likeable to a television audience: they were “born that way,” they never have sex, and, of course, they die tragically."

Erzen also writes that the "film’s response to the ex-gay argument that gay people can and should change is that sexuality is biological or genetic—a politics that grants full citizenship regardless of whether sexuality is immutable is illegible for the television genre." It's not all bad, as Erzen identifies the transformation of Bobby's mother, Mary (played by Sigourney Weaver), as "the most meaningful form of redemption in the film." But her critique is a timely one, and should force us to consider how seemingly positive representations of gay people can actually be stereotypical and deterministic. Erzen has written a book on the "ex-gay movement" within certain stains of conservative Christianity, and her 2006 interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air is a good introduction to her work.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ethics and Octuplets

As reported in various news outlets this week, Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets – only the second reported case of live octuplets being born in the United States. At present, Suleman, a single woman, has not yet revealed whether the births are a result of artificial insemination or any details concerning the conception of the children. However, the possibility that a fertility doctor implanted Suleman with eight embryos is causing concerns within the profession.

Whether artificial insemination is performed in vitro or intrauterine, doctors typically only work with two to four embryos. American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) guidelines call for no more than two embryos for women in their thirties seeking in vitro fertilization. A spokesperson for ASRM, Eleanor Nicoll, stated regarding Suleman, “"It should not have happened. Eight children should not have been conceived and born."

The reasoning behind the ASRM guidelines centers on the health of the embryos and mother. Multi-birth pregnancies create a higher risk for premature labor and delivery. The developing embryos have a higher risk for brain injuries, underdeveloped lungs and intestines, and cerebral palsy.

The apparent violation of these guidelines gives rise not only to medical concerns for the children and mother, but also to ethical questions. Lawrence Werlin, medical director of the Coastal Fertility Center in Irvine, indicates that prior to artificial insemination, questions are asked of the woman regarding how long she has attempted to get pregnant and the existence of other children. Given that Suleman already had six children, Werlin states, “I can't believe that she came in and said to the doctor that 'I want eight more children.' I can't believe that. And if she did, I would say, 'I'm sorry, I'm not the person for you.'" However, it appears that somebody may have done just that, whether Ms. Suleman asked for only one more child or did in fact ask for eight.

David C. Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, states that current guidelines are not as strict as in some other countries, and use the word “should” in many places. Magnus states that the only true remedy for those affected for violations of these guidelines is tort law. As of yet, medical organizations have failed to tighten up guidelines and/or create additional remedies.

No matter what one thinks about Ms. Suleman, this event has definitely resulted in many people thinking about multi-birth pregnancies. No matter whether these people agree or disagree with the propriety of artificial insemination giving rise to such pregnancies, this Washington Post article raises issues that require resolution. As David C. Magnus states, the current state of in vitro fertilization is basically an unregulated marketplace; if this marketplace remains unregulated, "there will be abuses." Until Ms. Suleman tells her full story, many will assume that such an abuse may have already taken place.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Same-Sex Rights in Washington State

Add Washington to the list of states working to expand the rights of same-sex couples. On Wednesday, the state announced plans to give the same rights given to heterosexual married couples to same-sex domestic partners.

The proposed Bill would amend the current state law to include same-sex domestic partners in sections where currently only married couples are addressed. All state statutes dealing with married couples would be amended; such sections range from “labor and employment to pensions and other public employee benefits.” Previously, lawmakers had been successful in adding protections for same-sex domestic couples to areas of law including probate, trust, community property, guardianships and power of attorney.

As expected, those opposing this latest measure claim that this Bill will only further the move towards same-sex marriage. These opponents claim that sanctioning same-sex marriage will dilute traditional marriages. A separate measure to legalize same-sex marriage in the state has in fact been introduced, “but is unlikely to go anywhere this year.”

When it comes to this type of legislation, one thing always seems to strike me: the opponents’ claim that same-sex marriage will dilute their own heterosexual marriage. Even mentioning same-sex marriage or providing similar protections to same-sex domestic partners, as Washington is attempting to do, brings out those who claim that any such expansion of rights makes traditional marriage less “pure”. The granting of such rights should not affect the quality of another’s relationship; whether it’s an interracial marriage, a marriage of two people with a wide age gap (granted there is no other illegality such as undue influence) or a same-sex marriage, the overall quality will remain the same.

Additionally, the main crux of this Washington Bill is to provide similar rights to same-sex domestic couples. While it may lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage, it will not necessarily do so. This will merely entitle same-sex domestic partners to enjoy employment benefits that heterosexual couples already receive. It will allow same-sex couples to exercise these rights with the force of the law supporting them, instead of having to fight to receive these benefits. If a state is to recognize a same-sex domestic partnership or marriage, it is only right that they are provided applicable rights under the state law.

For the complete article, click here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

President Obama and Guantanamo

In one of his first official act as President, Barack Obama is expected to sign an executive order today that will close the detention camp at Guantanamo as well a number of C.I.A. “secret” prisons. Along with closing these prisons, the executive order would set in place new procedures for the handling of suspected terrorists.

The over two-hundred terrorism suspects currently being held at Guantanamo would be reviewed immediately to determine their status and whether to release, transfer or prosecute them. The executive order will also reduce the amount of time terrorism suspects are held in custody; currently, many of these suspects are secretly being held for months and sometimes years. Finally, the order would require the C.I.A. to follow interrogation rules similar to those used by the military, disallowing any coercive interrogation techniques.

While this order is being lauded by some as a solution to current human rights violations, there are some unresolved issues in President Obama’s plan. With the closing of Guantanamo, the immediate review required will be a challenge; questions still remain as to how many prisoners will be transferred and/or prosecuted, as well as where they will be transferred to. The executive order also leaves room for President Obama, or another future President, to reopen the C.I.A. prisons that are being closed by this order, “as some have argued would be appropriate if Osama bin Laden or another top-level leader of Al Qaeda were captured.” Also, there appear to be worries within the C.I.A. that the restriction of interrogation techniques will prevent them from acquiring vital information from those high up in suspected terrorist groups.

From a human rights standpoint, it is easy to support President Obama’s plan. With the reports of torture and coercive interrogation techniques from the past year, the President is making a strong move to avoid further transgressions. Many of the suspects affected are not even necessarily officially within the government’s custody; many of these suspects have been held for longer than what many would consider a reasonable time. With the signing of this order, such prolonged and secret custody will be eliminated.

While the human rights standpoint is strong and convincing, there is still the practical matter of how to effectively and efficiently review the currently held suspects, and how and where to handle those that are determined to be transferred and/or prosecuted. As for the C.I.A.’s claim that the restriction on the interrogation techniques they can use limits their effectiveness, that is a claim that perhaps cannot be substantiated until the new standards are in effect. Once these practical issues are resolved, it appears that President Obama’s plan will prevent the continuance of such wrongdoing related to terrorism suspects.

For the full article from the New York Times, click here.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Uneasy State of Book Publishing

A brief food-for-thought entry: As I mentioned last week, e-books were a definitive highlight for book publishers over the past twelve months. E-book sales in the U.S. have shot upward; the Amazon Kindle has become a hit consumer item, even with limited availability; interest in the Sony Reader remains high; and one publisher's recent comments reveal the potential for e-books on the iPhone. Dana Goodyear's essay on Japanese "cell-phone novels" also indicates how digital technology can influence what--and who--is professionally published.

The unfortunate flip side is that the traditional, bread-and-butter wing of of book publishing--hardcover and paperback books--is in serious trouble. (Goodyear notes that Japanese publishers have "embraced cell-phone novels" in part because the industry has "shrunk by more than twenty percent in the last eleven years.") Jason Boog summarizes just how bleak the near future will be for the industry. In mentioning Boog's essay, Anika at WriteBlack is blunt in her assessment: "Somebody’s got to reinvent publishing, and it has to happen faster than it’s happening now."

So what's the future path? Anika elaborates in a comment to the above post:

"I think part of the problem for the book publishing industry is the same problem as in newspapers: It’s obvious that the way of the future is digital, but even as dead-tree profits are falling, dead trees still make way more money than digital editions. If companies drop paper versions right now, they’ll have to fire 90 percent of their staffs and get rid of 90 percent of their editors, because the new business model right now just won’t sustain the overhead that actually keeps the industry running."

In other words, there are no easy answers.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama sworn in with Lincoln's Bible

Interesting tidbit of the day:

President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on January 20, 2009. He will be taking the oath of office with his hand on the same bible Abraham Lincoln used at his 1861 inauguration.

Why is this interesting? Well, use of this particular Bible by the first black man to be elected president is considered significant because it was used by the president credited with ending slavery in this country more than a century ago.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

New Supreme Court Ruling to Affect Exclusionary Rule

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing for the admissibility of evidence, even if said evidence was improperly seized. Under this ruling, the Court found that as long as the improper seizure was the “result of isolated negligence”, the arrest is not necessarily invalidated.

The ruling stems from a case of a man from Alabama who was arrested due to an improper notification that an arrest warrant had been issued. Upon acting upon this non-existent warrant, police discovered guns and drugs in possession of the individual, which led to his challenged conviction.

Justice Roberts, writing for the majority which also included Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito, stated that, “We conclude that when police mistakes are the result of negligence such as that described here, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements," the evidence may still be admissible in court. Justice Roberts concluded that this was more of a “bookkeeping” error, and not a deliberate attempt to violate an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Writing for the dissent, Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer, stated that, “The most 'serious impact' of the court's holding will be on innocent persons 'wrongfully arrested based on erroneous information [carelessly maintained] in a computer data base'". Instead of having motivation to ensure records are maintained correctly, the dissent argues that this ruling allows too great a leeway to encourage any need to correct any defects or problems.

The Court seems to leave the decision of the severity of the error, “bookkeeping” v. disregard of Fourth Amendment rights, up to the trial court. By allowing the trial court to determine the severity of the error, the trial court seems to have final discretion as to what can and cannot be admitted in these cases. With such discretion, it is uncertain how far this exception will go.

As an illustration of the uncertainty this ruling may cause, also reported today is the recent announcement that 945 cases in Los Angeles are being reviewed due to improper fingerprint analysis. So far, only two wrongful arrests have been found, but there is still much work to be performed. Still, the question becomes, in relation to this recent Supreme Court decision – would this fall under a “bookkeeping” error and any incriminating evidence found due to this improper fingerprinting be admissible in court? If fingerprints at a scene of a crime lead to an arrest, albeit an arrest of a different individual for an unassociated crime due to the mislabeling or misreading of fingerprints, have the rights of this unassociated individual been violated? Prior to this ruling, the answer would most certainly seem to be “yes”; however, with this ruling the answer is not so certain.

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable, unwarranted searches and seizures. Any evidence gained in violation of this right is excluded from being used at trial. To now say that a court has the discretion to admit evidence gained in violation of this right, due to a “bookkeeping” error, seems to be nothing more than an improper circumvention of an individual’s Constitutional rights.

For the Washington Post article discussing the Supreme Court’s decision, click here.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reconsidering Digital Readers, Thanks to the Amazon Kindle

Back in October, I criticized Library Journal editor John Berry's "Escape from Reading" for, among other things, oversimplifying new media as a form of "liberation" from reading books. Berry's personal dislike of reading is what seems to fuel his flawed argument, and it's fair to criticize him for letting his own bias obscure what could have been a thoughtful column. Yet after writing my entry, I realized that when it comes to the subject of digital books, I've been guilty of the same problem. With an occasional exception, my attitude towards e-books and e-book devices (hello, Sony Reader!) has been consistently negative, even though I had never actually used an e-book reader, or even done that much with Google Books. My problem is the opposite of Berry's--reading books is one of my favorite forms of mass media consumption, and I love buying books and managing my book collection at home. The experience of reading and buying physical books has left me disinclined to explore e-books, and that personal preference has colored my opinion of e-books as a viable option for the general public.

Hopefully, that's now beginning to change a bit. On New Year's Eve, a friend let me try out the Amazon Kindle that he had received as a Christmas present. And though I only used the Kindle for a few minutes, my impressions were generally positive. At just over 10 ounces, it weighs less than an average $14-16 retail paperback, and I found that it was fairly comfortable to hold aloft. The menu interface wasn't spectacular, but navigating to and from different books was simple after some trial and error. Most significant, in my opinion, was the screen. Amazon boasts about its "electronic-paper display," and that's understandable, because it really is quite sharp and paper-like. When I held it up close to a floor lamp, there was virtually no glare. Combined with adjustable font sizes, the Kindle's display is extremely readable.

Does that make it (or the Sony Reader) an adequate replacement for physical books? For some people, the answer may be yes; the Kindle has gained popularity (and remains sold-out), and e-books were a definite bright spot in what was otherwise a pretty glum 2008 for book publishers. My friend mentioned that the Kindle would be a supplement to his reading habits. He's going to read physical books regardless of technology, but having the option to buy relatively cheap e-books might entice him to make purchases that he wouldn't normally consider. This, I think, is a healthy approach. The Kindle still has significant limitations, including its price and how it renders periodical and web content. It's disappointing that its e-books are in a proprietary format (in other words, work only with the Kindle). Additionally, as my friend noted, it and other e-book readers still can't provide the same type of spontaneous reading experience where one can, say, peek ahead to the end of a chapter or flip back and forth between pages rapidly. It is possible to do those things on an e-book reader, but not in the same way.

Nevertheless, reading from and using a Kindle was enjoyable, and it was silly for me to have envisioned a soul-draining experience. It still is far from perfect, and the digital rights questions about e-books in general--such as the lack of resellability--remain valid. But there is a lot to like, and considering that the device is still in its 1.0 version, there are certainly possibilites for reaching heretofore untapped markets (consumers with disabilities and college students being two examples). For me, it's offered a personal reminder to try to not let preconceived notions and opinions overdetermine my thinking on the subject.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

New Jersey's Flu Vaccination Requirement

This week, a New Jersey court is set to hear challenges to a newly implemented policy requiring children between the ages of six (6) months and five (5) to obtain a flu vaccination before being allowed to return to their licensed pre-school and child care centers. Citing health concerns, New Jersey is the first state to institute such a requirement.

As classrooms tend to be ideal places for children to spread illness, which often times is later passed on to family members at home, requiring this vaccine is seen as a measure to ensure the “overall public health”. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “[e]ach year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications and about 36,000 people die from the flu”; approximately 10% of those affected by the flu are children, and last year there were reports of 86 child deaths due to “flu-related complications”. Already in New Jersey, “[t]here have been about five cases of pediatric flu-related illnesses that required hospitalization this season.” Additionally, the CDC had previously recommended that all children between the ages of six (6) months and eighteen (18) years be immunized.

On the other side of the argument, parents are claiming that it should be their decision as to whether their child is immunized or not. Also, many parents claim they are hesitant to have their child(ren) vaccinated due to fears of health risks. In order to allow the parents a choice in this matter, the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice is attempting to obtain exemptions for any conscientious objectors.

The difficult issue in this scenario is the intrusion by the government into the lives of private citizens, but for purposes that will purportedly help the general public as much as the individual being intruded upon. Adding to the difficulty is that this requirement is only being levied upon those attending government approved facilities, which are arguably not required to be attended.

Parents in this case seem to have some options, albeit not very attractive options, such as: not use these facilities and keep their children at home, which is not very likely especially if both parents, or a single parent, are/is employed; find non-licensed daycares/preschools for their children, which raises obvious issues of its own; hire in-home care, which has several issues including cost; or, have their child vaccinated, which is problematic for many. Balancing the interests is not easy from a non-legal point of view, but it would seem that the government’s health interests will override those of the individuals. As evidenced by various challenges to smoking bans implemented by states in the past, courts have seemed to side with the overall health interests cited by the state over those of a select class. It would seem that this trend will continue in this case as well.

For the New York Times article, click here.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Five Favorites from 2008

--Hanna Rosin's reporting for The Atlantic
GetReligion's Terry Mattingly: "Rosin is a liberal’s liberal, when it comes to issues of science, religion and culture, but she is a brutally candid reporter and writer." Rosin's 2007 book God's Harvard was a critical, nuanced account of student experience at the fundamentalist Patrick Henry University in Virginia. Her two stories for The Atlantic this year were November's "A Boy's Life," which Mattingly discusses in the link above, and "American Murder Mystery" from the July/August issue. Both are fantastic pieces, challenging the ideological assumptions and conventional wisdom of both conservatives and liberals while providing first-rate analysis.

--Mark Silk's blog Spiritual Politics
Spiritual Politics first appeared in October 2007 as an election blog that would seemingly have multiple contributors. But Trinity College professor of religion Mark Silk has provided virtually all of the blog's posts since its inception, and that's been a good thing; his takes on religion and politics during the recent election season were consistently sound and insightful. Even better is that Spiritual Politics will have a post-election presence, as Silk continues to write regular updates.

--Constantine's Sword (documentary)
I have yet to read James Carroll's book Constantine's Sword, and can only imagine how much cutting and editing was necessary to create a documentary based on the seven hundred and fifty-plus page bestseller. Still the documentary makes for compelling viewing, especially as Carroll works through his own Catholic experience in an effort to understand the presence of militarism and anti-Semitism in Christian history. It's far from perfect--the issues Carroll raises require a lot more than ninety minutes of film--but certainly thought-provoking.

--Rightward Bound (eds. Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer) and The Family (by Jeff Sharlet)
Most of the books I read in the past twelve months weren't from 2008, but these two are notable exceptions; I reviewed both for PopMatters (see here and here). Rightward Bound convincingly argues that several factors from the 1970s help explain how conservatism began dominating American politics (and also why it has begun to fail in recent years). In The Family, Sharlet urges readers to reconsider fundamentalism, how religion influences politics, and the basic nature of American political power--a tall order, but one that he acomplishes with strong evidence and prose.

--The Hold Steady's Separation Sunday
There plenty of music I could list here, but the Hold Steady's most recent album is as good of a choice as any, combining several different rock influences into something creative, catchy, and worthy of many, many repeat listens.