It was just past 7 PM on Election Night, 2012. I was in front of my computer, a dozen browser windows open to various local news outlets and social networks, feverishly making memes for the ACLU. “Don’t Leave the Line,” they said in English and Spanish. “By law, if you’re in line when the polls close, you must be allowed to vote.”
With less than an hour until polls closed, and wind chills well below freezing, thousands of people across our state were still waiting in line to vote. We’d received word that some officials planned to lock their doors at the 8PM cutoff, so while some of our staff took calls to voting rights hotlines, our attorneys were on the phone with judges and election officials, and I worked the social networks, trying to spread the word so that no one gave up their rightful place in line.
This circumstance was not unique to Pennsylvania, or to the 2012 election, and while intentional attempts to suppress votes are at least in part to blame, the larger problem is a system and an infrastructure woefully inadequate to handle even the 60% of eligible Americans who choose to vote.
Our system of elections in the United States is a joke. Voters participating in the most vital core function of democracy must do so by visiting their municipal buildings, staffed by volunteers, often to fill out a piece of paper. In some states–including Pennsylvania–polling places might literally be inside private homes. This is not the system of elections one expects from a society where a person can order a yoga mat from their smartphone and have delivered to their hands 12 minutes later.* It’s past time for the United States to embrace electronic voting. Continue Reading
In October, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the “Revictimization Relief Act,” which allows crime victims to police the actions of perpetrators for life with almost no limits. The inspiration was a recorded commencement speech by Mumia Abu-Jamal played at a Vermont college earlier that month; Pennsylvania legislators said the speech re-victimized the widow and family of Daniel Faulkner, the Philly cop Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing.
Faulkner’s widow was not forced to hear the speech. Her trauma and mental anguish came only from the knowledge that Abu-Jamal would deliver it. “How could they allow him to speak when Danny no longer has a voice,” she asked in an official statement. “It is my opinion that all murderers should forfeit their right to free speech when they take the life of an innocent person.”
A majority of Pennsylvania legislators agreed. They gave Maureen Faulkner, and other victims, the legal right to stop convicted people like Abu-Jamal from doing almost anything. The law, as written and passed, allows victims to prevent any “conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim,” with such conduct defined as that which “causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”
To many, the idea that one person’s subjective emotional experience trumps another’s constitutional rights is an affront, and the ACLU has already sued to strike down the Pennsylvania law. But the elevation of emotion is emerging as a disturbing theme of 21st century law. [pullquote position=”right”]As more Americans seek to protect people’s feelings, they sometimes find themselves in conflict with the foundation principles of justice.[/pullquote]
This year the Supreme Court will rule on Elonis v. United States, a complicated case in which a Pennsylvania man, Anthony Elonis, was convicted after posting graphic and horrifying Facebook statuses obviously directed as his ex-wife. Elonis’s defense claims he was writing rap lyrics, expressing his darker urges in the style of Eminem, and that the First Amendment protects him. Prosecutors say his messages constitute a true threat, and are not constitutionally protected. The case reached the high court partly because of a question over jury instructions: While the First Amendment and prior case law rely on the speaker’s intent to threaten, jurors who convicted Elonis were told to consider his speech a threat “if a reasonable person would have felt threatened.” [Emphasis added]
In other words, the difference between free speech and a federal crime hinges not on what was written or how, but rather on the emotional response of the person doing the reading. Continue Reading
I encourage you to read this piece in Colgate University’s newsletter about Vic Walczak, the state legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. I had the privilege to work with Vic during my time on staff there, though never as much as I would have liked. He’s a great guy who’s helped a lot of people, and the story is well worth your time.
I took to video to share my thoughts about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Town of Greece v Galloway. It’s a terrible ruling that opens the door for towns across America to essentially endorse unofficially-official religions.
I spent some time on Twitter yesterday talking to people who think the ruling is a good idea, but I think most of them misunderstand the questions in this case–if they don’t suffer more systemic misunderstandings about the history of the United States and the Constitution. Continue Reading