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Raising Arizona: Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies Program Under Attack January 9, 2011

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Education, Law, Ethics & Society, Racial Discrimination, U.S. Constitution.
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Dueling perceptions of the reality of Tucson’s ethnic studies’ programs have caused the state legislature to pass a bill directed at Tucson’s ethnic studies program.  No, wait a moment…Did I say ethnic studies? Seems that the African-American and Native-American studies program are safe, but the Mexican-American program is so controversial that it resulted in its own “private” legislation.

The bill, known as HB2281, was actually passed last fall, but just became effective.  Tom Horne, Arizona’s Superintendent for Schools who has just become  Arizona’s Attorney General, is a proponent of the law that “authorizes the state superintendent to stop any ethnic studies classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” In fact, Horne has conceded that Tucson’s program is the target of this law. His successor, John Huppenthal, supports Horne’s findings against Tucson’s Mexican-American Program.

Shortly after this law was passed last fall, a group of Tucson’s teachers filed suit to have the law overturned, alleging constitutional violations including First Amendment free speech claims and a lack of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.  While Horne and Huppenthal have alleged that the Mexican-American program teaches anti-American precepts such as Ben Franklin was a racist and promotes undesirable “ethnic chauvinism”, both student and teacher testimonials applaud the inclusion of history from a “Mexican-American” perspective and assert that the program “has been effective in reducing dropout rates among Latino students, as well as discipline problems, poor attendance and failure rates.”

The controversy in general and the lawsuit specifically could serve as another great opportunity for a sociological, legal and cultural debate on both free speech and the educational system in a diverse democratic setting except for one serious constraint.  HB2281 comes equipped with some serious financial teeth; if Tucson does not dismantle its program within 60 days then the state can devastate the entire Tucson educational system by imposing a 15 million dollar penalty upon Tucson. The lawsuit requests an injunction to prevent the law from being imposed prior to the lawsuit being resolve and apparently the Tucson School Board has already submitted a letter to the state detailing the current program’s compliance with the law.

Arizona’s battle is one worth watching as it represents cultural and educational issues that impact our children and the future of our country.  Besides….after seeing the copy cat immigration legislation popping up in campaigns last November, it won’t be surprising if other states’ legislatures start debating and attempting to legislate ethnic studies programs in our own backyards.


Lean to the Left, Lean to the Right…Stand Up, Sit Down, Is It Really a First Amendment Fight? — NPR v Juan Williams October 24, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society, Mindfulness, Racial Discrimination, Religion, U.S. Constitution.
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The U.S. Constitution provides freedom of speech and press….that is found in the First Amendment.  Our freedoms to feel and think, regardless of whether we speak, are innate and have been described by philosophers as aspects of our natural rights as human beings. Juan Williams, a self described Black journalist and civil rights advocate, shared his feelings of a “moment of  anxiety” when boarding an airplane, post 9/11, along side Muslim individuals who are dressed in traditional Muslim clothing.  Williams expressed these views on the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News where Williams is a paid contributor.  Williams has also warned about the potential of this type of fear to create unwarranted bigotry against Muslims.  National Public Radio, (NPR), who employed Williams as a news analyst, promptly fired Williams stating that there is no place in analyzing the news for  a reporter’s opinion as it undermines credibility.

Williams was immediately offered a large contract by Fox News as the backlash against NPR for the firing continues….Interesting to ponder whether if the situation had been reversed–if Williams had made the comment on NPR as a guest contributor while an employee of Fox–whether this would even be much of  a news item. Williams was not reporting a news event.  He was expressing a personal anxiety that  has become especially inflammatory in light of recent controversies in the news concerning the building of a mosque near ground zero and the threatened burning of the Koran on 9/11.

Whether his statement, which he has since explained was made to highlight the need to pause and become aware of ones feelings to achieve a rational tolerance for others and avoid bigotry, is inappropriate journalism, an overreaction by a hypersensitive left-wing news organization or just a reflection of the reality of post 9/11 tension in society is the subject of the current debate.  It begs the question of what is the responsibility  and appropriate role of those participating in the 24 hour cable news cycle phenomena?

Clearly, the First Amendment allows Williams to share his anxiety and permits everyone else to criticize his decision to make his feelings public.  NPR’s termination of Williams and Fox’s offer of a new contract are likewise permissible expressions of disapproval and support.

The question remains what is the most appropriate manner and forum in which to discuss the realities of undeniable post 9/11 tensions that linger in our country?  Do we talk “around” the underlying reality of these tensions in debating the ground zero mosque?  Do we remove irrational prejudice and bigotry in our society by  claiming that it is illegal, socially unacceptable and ignoring an analysis of its roots?  The answers to these questions vary based upon to whom the questions are posed.  Juan Williams believes that in revealing his own visceral fear and identifying it as a cause for concern, he was contributing to a discussion in which he hoped acknowledgement and exposure of human nature might alert us to the potential for unwarranted discrimination arising from this type of fear. Others believe that as a high-profile figure, his statement reinforced and condoned anti-Muslim sentiment in our country.  The answers depend upon a person’s particular orientation and perspective.  However, more important than the answers, is the debate concerning the questions and the freedom of speech that permits the conversation to continue.

Burning the Koran: The Frightening Reach of the Internet and The First Amendment September 8, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society, Religion, U.S. Constitution.
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Pastor Terry Jones, the pastor of a church with 50 members, is planning a national burning of the Koran day to commemorate September 11th.  He lives in Gainesville, Florida and in another era Jones’ hostile rhetoric might have been only a local community problem.  However, introduce Facebook and the reach of the internet and Jones has created an international controversy with people not only cheering and abhorring the event, but also fearing for their lives in foreign countries.

Jones, who holsters a gun on his hip, is aware of pleas from Christians who live as far away as Indonesia and Afghanistan and are afraid of the repercussions of the burning the Koran.  However, Jones appears to be stubborn in his determination to spread his word of the evil infiltration of Islam into our country.  All of this fervor despite the fact that Jones acknowledges that he has never read the Koran and only knows what the Bible says.

One insightful observer has commented that Terry Jones has “hijacked Christianity” much as Al Qaeda “hijacked Islam.” So why are Gainesville officials allowing Mr Jones to proceed?  Terry Jones’ actions are blanketed in First Amendment protection–The U.S. Supreme Court has held that both the burning of the American flag and the Ku Klux Klan’s cross burning is a form of  protected speech unless it is done with intent to specifically intimidate another individual.

Our democracy allows Jones to initiate National Burn a Koran Day and also supports the right of the people planning to assemble to protest Jones’ event.  Again, one has to wonder whether the Founding Fathers  might have been a bit more specific in their thinking if they could have envisioned the Internet and the international ripples that Facebook enables.  And we should note once again that just because someone is afforded Constitutional rights does not necessarily speak to the wisdom of exercising those rights, insensitively, at the expense of others.

As a person whose ancestors were murdered at Auschwitz, I cannot help but connect the burning of books to Nazi Germany. “Book burnings by German college students preceded Kristallnacht and proved 19th century German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine’s prediction. “Where they burns books they will eventually burn people.””

While I am always cautious  when invoking a Nazi analogy and clearly distinguish Nazi inhumanity as government action rather than the ranting of an individual citizen empowered with freedom of expression,  I am sure that I am not alone in having that guttural reaction.  Obviously, the burning of any books, and especially a sacred book, is a powerful statement and that is why Jones is planning his bonfire.

And while our country tolerates a wide range of freedom of expression, what we do not legally tolerate and should not socially tolerate is abject discrimination.  The fact that we have honest dialogue and exchange of varying viewpoints is undeniably an admirable, precious feature of our government.  The fact that we currently are having a debate about the “Muslim issue” in our country is alarming beyond expression and should be  frightening to anyone who  respects not only the right of  freedom of religion, but also the basic right to be free. Period. Pure and simple.

Dream or Nightmare? Glenn Beck Standing in Martin Luther King’s “Spot” at the Lincoln Memorial August 29, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society, Religion.
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Martin Luther King uttered his famous “I had a dream” speech 47 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial.  ‘Wonder what he would have thought of Glenn Beck’s religious revival as an anniversary celebration….? Glenn Beck says the timing is just a coincidence or divine providence.  He started planning a political rally about a year ago, but at some point realized that there was a need for a religious taking back of America.

Wow, the First Amendment’s promise of free speech is in full force–-that’s a good thing–-But what about the part of the same Amendment that assures not only freedom of religion, but separation of church and state?  It’s a little frightening to see a call to reclaim America as a religious state.  Especially when the folks funding the Tea Party are extraordinarily wealthy big business types who have their own agendas.  (See Frank Rich’s column on the Billionaires Bankrolling the Tea Party here)

So, is Glenn Beck’s rally, America at its finest or democracy at its scariest?  Democracy is still the best system that we have devised to allow for individual freedom and liberty, but sometimes one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare.

Helen Thomas: The Consequences of the First Amendment June 13, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society.
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Free speech is a sacred tenet of democracy and humanity.  However, free speech does not absolve an individual of the consequences of her speech.  Legally, as a society, we have decided that there are limits to free speech.  The fact that the  proverbial example of  yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater ( when there is no fire) and  thereby causing pandemonium and physical danger is impermissible is established law.  And of course, lawyers are generally not allowed to disclose their clients’ confidences or defame judges.

However, even when you are well within you broad legal rights to say whatever is on your mind in our country, there still are and should be consequences for your speech.  Leonard Pitts, who received the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award in April, has a terrific column explaining that even someone of Helen’s age and accomplishments doesn’t get a pass on bigotry.  And Sara K. Eisen, the Word-Well blogger, did a wonderful piece explaining why the anti-Semitism “thing” continues to inflame, but in the context of history is really nothing new. 

The historical and seemingly innate predisposition of human beings to judge other human beings based upon a limited view of the distinctions among us, will only change, I submit, when we begin to view ourselves with an emphasis on our similarities and the collective consciousness to which we all ultimately belong.

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