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free speech

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11Student Told He Can't Hand Out Constitution On School Campus, Wins $50,000 In Suit Against Them (Video)

Last September, college junior Robert Van Tuinen decided that since it was Constitution day, he would hand out copies of the constitution on campus. The 26-year-old army veteran didn’t see anything wrong with this, but Modesto Junior College did, and campus police approached him, asking him to stop handing out the documents.

The incident was caught on video. Van Tuinen can be seen being questioned by a campus police officer who tells him that he can’t pass out the documents because, “there are rules.” Van Tuinen asks the officer to tell him what the rules are while explaining that he is planning to start an organization called Young Americans for Liberty.

“That’s fine, but if you’re going to start an organization like that you have to go through the rigamarole,” responded the officer.

"It was a tense situation," said Van Tuinen to Fox News. "To be told I can't do something as basic as handing out the Constitution was frustrating."

Van Tuinen was taken to an administrative office where a woman told him that there is a designated area on campus for free speech demonstrations, and said if he wanted to hand out the flyers, he had to do it there. That area was already occupied at the time.

Now, Van Tuinen and Modesto Junior College have reached a $50,000 settlement after the student filed suit against them. In addition to paying him $50,000, the school will be changing their free speech policy going forward. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, represented Van Tuinen in the case.

“I am thrilled with this outcome and I am grateful to my attorneys and FIRE for securing this agreement,” van Tuinen said. “Now the Modesto Junior College community and I will be able to engage in free discussion on campus. I encourage students at other schools with restrictive free speech policies to stand up for their rights.”

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11Pittsburgh Rappers Sentenced for Threatening Police in a Song: True Threat or First Amendment Violation?

Two young men were sentenced to prison for a slew of charges all stemming from an arrest made after the pair recorded and released a rap video that referenced both convicted cop-killer Richard Poplawski and two specific officers who previously arrested them.

Jamal Knox, age 19, and Rashee Beasley, age 22, of Pittsburgh, Pa., who go by the rap monikers “Mayhem Mal” and “Soulja Beaz” respectively, were arrested on March 20, 2013. They lied about their identities and ran from police, but it all began because they made a rap song and the police took it seriously.

The ruling, handed down by Allegheny County judge Jeffrey Manning, dismissed the plaintiffs’ First Amendment concerns according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “This isn’t about freedom of speech,” he told the court. “It clearly was intimidation of witnesses. It clearly was terroristic threats.” Since the video was removed from YouTube, there is no way to know for sure the context.

Pittsburgh attorney Samuel J. Cordes was quoted in the Tribune-Review saying the song flirts with the line between protected speech and the true threat law. “They were expressing a view, however unpopular that it may be,” Cordes said. “On the other side of the coin, they did it while awaiting trial about the officers who were going to testify against them.”

While this is true, the question actually hinges on whether or not the rappers, as stated in Virginia v. Black, “subjectively intend[ed] that [their] comments be interpreted as a true threat.” Knox said in open court that his “Mayhem Mal” moniker represents a character. “As a rapper, you have to put on an image,” he said. “It's not just Jamal Knox being a rapper. My product is Mayhem Mal.”

The central ethical question then involves the “thug culture” popularized by hip-hop and applied liberally to other situations, most recently the controversy surrounding Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks. When discussing the emergence of gangsta rap in a cultural context, it — like millennia of art before it — documented a point of view that otherwise had gone unnoticed in society at large. Yet, with hip hop it has become somewhat aspirational.

Jay-Z, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre are all cultural icons and multimillionaire business moguls who came from the same culture of violence and drugs that these two youths were born into. If the goal is to guide these young men to the “straight-and-narrow” rather than send them to jail, why not send them to a performing arts school? Dissuade their thug persona by helping them expand their artistic perspective, rather than surround them with convicted criminals.

Writers, visual artists, and musicians have come from the impoverished, often criminalized minority for as long as there has been art. In this case, it seems very clear that where Jamal Knox and Rashee Beasley are powerless in the face of the system, Mayhem Mal and Soulja Beaz are not. They inhabit a fictional world not unlike the cowboy culture of the old west that has mythologized outlaws and gunfighters. They are feared and respected, not crippled by circumstance. They were given nothing and so they take what they want; it’s a very American archetype.

While at the University of Pittsburgh, I wrote an essay about the “gun culture” that both detailed Richard Poplawski’s gun battle with police and contained a scene where I diagrammed how I would shoot a room full of people (people who coincidentally are as real as the officers mentioned at the top of the song). Was I arrested or questioned by police? No. In fact, I was given an award for it and read the latter scene on local public radio.

The value of art is subjective, but the value of free artistic expression is an intrinsic part of the American ideal. It is all too common in modern society that when art highlights something that makes folks uncomfortable to attack the artist and not the societal truth the art exposes. 

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11American Atheists Files Lawsuit Against Display of Ten Commandments in Oklahoma Capitol

Oklahoma officials have created quite the problem for themselves. Back in November when (the typo-ridden) one ton Ten Commandments monument went up outside of the Oklahoma Capitol, the state was already preparing for legal challenges. Now, over a year since the monument was installed, American Atheists have filed suit challenging the monument's placement on grounds of both free speech and equal protection.

Interestingly, the lawsuit cites the text of the old film The Ten Commandments as the source material for the monument, which somehow makes it even more perfectly American.

The persecuted religious in this drama are not the atheists or even the Christians themselves, but instead Satanists. Unless the American Atheists lawsuit is successful, the Oklahoma State Government has opened up the floodgates of belief. Local Hindus filed a petition to place a monument to Lord Hanuman—a great green half-monkey/half-man described in a press release as a god “greatly revered and worshipped and known for incredible strength and was a perfect grammarian.” Although it is a request from local Satanists backed by the main Church of Satan in New York City to erect a statue of Baphomet—seated between two adoring children—that has most garnered the most attention.

On Imus in the Morning, executive producer Bernard McGuirk expressed his disgust at the idea, saying (in jest) that they should be shot and calling them (not-so in jest) “evil.” McGuirk’s sentiment echoes that of many Christians who believe modern Satanists are movie-style villains practicing ritual murder, drinking blood, and doing all sorts of evil deeds.

While classic literature depicts Satan as a being who wanted to worship God alone and expressed disdain for mortals, Satanists claim that their religion is the ultimate in self-help. Satanism—at least the version that adheres to the tenets of Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible—is not about worshipping Satan, but is instead about relying on one's self over mythological figures. The symbolism of these two ideologies represented via the Ten Commandments Monument and the Baphomet statue would also be perfectly American—showing that members of two faiths with such polar opposite beliefs can coexist in Oklahoma.

Of course, the Baphomet statue will most likely not be built and the American Atheists will most likely win their suit. Throughout the legal filing, they document how almost all of the commandments—save for those decrying murder and theft—would not pass “constitutional muster.” In fact, the only way to defeat the lawsuit would be for the government to take steps to install monuments (provided they are privately paid for as was the Ten Commandments monument) for every religion that wants one.

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11Former Minnesota Vikings Punter Chris Kluwe Says He Was Fired By Two Cowards and A Bigot

Before September of 2012, punter Chris Kluwe wasn’t a name known by those outside of Seattle, Minnesota, and those interested in pro football minutiae. He made the jump from the small-type on the sports pages to viral headlines after publishing a letter written to a Maryland politician, who had written a similar open letter to the Baltimore Ravens after linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo spoke out for marriage equality.

Since then he has written a book and been released from the Vikings; he remains an unsigned free agent.

What got people talking about him again is an essay published Thursday on Deadspin in which he describes his time with the Vikings and why he thinks he was fired (it wasn’t for poor punting).

Throughout his lengthy essay, Kluwe recounts, in a much more restrained style than his other writing, what it was like for him at practice and in the locker room after his first letter went viral. The main villain in the piece is Mike Priefer, special teams coach for the Minnesota Vikings and contender for the top spot, who “half-jokingly” would argue with Kluwe about his position on marriage equality. Kluwe writes that of his teammates “some didn’t agree with me, but our conversations were always civil and respectful,” but with Priefer it was different.

Towards the end of the 2012 football season, Kluwe describes a meeting in which he and his teammates were joking about him being the Grand Marshal of the LGBT Pride Parade, and Preifer felt the urge to comment. Kluwe recalls that Priefer, “in one of the meanest voices I can ever recall hearing said: ‘we should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.’” The room then allegedly fell quiet and the “atmosphere was decidedly tense.” It was then that Kluwe noticed that he was receiving the same treatment from the coach as Ryan Longwell, a former placekicker, received before his firing.

Kluwe acknowledges “I will no longer punt in the NFL, especially now that I’ve written this account.” Yet, he remains charitable to the organization in general, hostile only towards Priefer, recently-fired head coach Leslie Frazier, and Vikings GM Rick Spielman, the latter two he calls “cowards.” He closes by saying that he doesn’t believe the NFL has an institutional problem with homophobia, but says that (like everywhere else) there are homophobic people in positions of power. “All we can do is try to expose their behavior when we see it,” he writes, “and call them to account for their actions.”

The world of sports media is even more saccharine and sanitized than almost any other news or entertainment. One could almost predict the answers to sports-reporters’ questions in news conferences:

Q: What does you think of the upcoming game with [insert team name]?

A:They are professionals and a challenge and let’s just hope for a good game.

Q: How does [insert specific sport achievement here] feel?

A: It feels great, but I didn’t do it alone. I have to thank [insert back-up teammembers’ names here].

Q: What about [insert specific controversial question here]?

A: I just want to get back to the fundamentals and play good [insert sport name here].

Despite what the fans-at-large may have thought of Kluwe’s positions or tone (or mediocre punting numbers), one cannot deny that he brought something vital back to sports: honesty.

Kluwe asserts that he was fired for the specific position he took, which may be true. It’s especially interesting to consider in light of the Duck Dynasty fiasco that was most likely all marketing. However, what seems more likely is not that Kluwe was fired for his specific position, but for taking a position at all. The NFL does not handle controversy well, especially if the controversy is aimed at a specific team or the NFL itself. If the problem is a specific player with mid-level numbers and no commercials running on Sundays, cutting him loose is the best way to rid themselves of it. 

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11Michigan Latest State to Consider Law Protecting Students' Right to Free Religious Expression

A bill currently in the Michigan State Senate would become the latest in a series of laws across the country that seek to protect a student’s right to freedom of expression (specifically with respect to religious expression). According to MLive.com, similar bills have been passed in Mississippi and “were also introduced in North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Alabama earlier this year.” Essentially, the point of bills like these is to ensure that students are able to publicly express their personal religious faith without being silenced by school officials or other representatives of the government.

As many armchair church-and-state historians will tell you, the prohibition against establishing a State religion only applies to the federal government. Many of the first states firmly established churches as their official religions, although that practice has fallen by the wayside by the mid-19th century. Of course, these bills in no way establish a religion and, in fact, the Mich. bill does not mention a specific denomination in the text.

Critics of the bill suggest it is a useless piece of legislation, because it establishes rights that students already have under the Bill of Rights, as evidenced by a recent Huffington Post article. The unnamed author writes, “this bill does not guarantee any right that isn’t already established in the U.S. Constitution and enforced by law.” Also, there is concern that students whose religious beliefs are in the minority may feel marginalized, especially if another denomination is more “popular” (to use high school parlance).

While perhaps these bills are redundant to both the U.S. Constitution and—according to MLive.com— “the Michigan Constitution [which] also includes protections for religious expression,” there is also an argument to be made that expression can never have enough protection, especially for minors—a group that already has limited rights.

The Mich. bill has since been referred to the Senate Education Committee and has sponsors from both parties. The similar bill in Miss. became law, but the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU said it would likely draw a lawsuit. However, no such lawsuit appears to have been filed.

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11Man Suing Government for Censoring NSA-Parody T-Shirts

While few would expect the National Security Agency to have a sense of humor, one would at least hope that they respect citizens' constitutional rights. But in the case of Dan McCall, owner of novelty goods company LibertyManiacs, the NSA is applying the sort of censorship one might find in China, North Korea or other less-democratic societies.

McCall is fighting back, suing for his right to mock the spy organization as well as other government departments.

LibertyManiacs sells shirts featuring the NSA logo with the caption “The NSA: The only part of the government that actually listens.” Other items include mugs with slogans like “Department of Homeland Stupidity.”

The government sent a cease-and-desist order against against distributor Zazzle in 2011, after which the company stopped selling McCall’s products. Zazzle explained, “Unfortunately, it appears that your product, The NSA, contains content that is in conflict with one or more of our acceptable content guidelines. We will be removing this product from the Zazzle Marketplace shortly.”

McCall joked about the issue, saying, “Well, on the positive side I could get the unenviable honorific of being ‘the 1st man to receive a cease and desist from the National Security Agency for telling a joke.’”

But McCall, represented by Public Citizen, is not joking with his lawsuit against the DHS and NSA for violation of First Amendment rights.

Said attorney Paul Alan Levy, “The agencies’ attempts to forbid McCall from displaying and selling his merchandise are inconsistent with the First Amendment. It’s bad enough that these agencies have us under constant surveillance; forbidding citizens from criticizing them is beyond the pale.”

Public Citizen posted a statement on their website saying, “Public Citizen is asking the court to declare that several provisions of the National Security Agency Act cannot be enforced to forbid McCall from displaying his merchandise, and that two other laws are unconstitutionally overbroad because they violate the First Amendment by saying no one can “mutilate or alter the seal of any department or agency of the United States.”

Although Zazzle dropped McCall’s wares, they are still available at CafePress.com.

Sources: Ars Technica, Public Citizen

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11Bar Harbor, Maine Bans Christmas-themed Veterans' Memorial

American culture is increasingly becoming a culture of offense. Expression from public and private individuals is consistently under scrutiny which, when combined with the internet and love of tabloid-media moments, can make a disagreement between the residents of a town into the focus of a national story about “the war” on Christmas and/or veterans.

According to The Bangor Daily News, for two years, the town of Bar Harbor Maine has decorated an Evergreen tree with lights as part of a memorial to those who fell in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, fought during the Christmas of 1944. However, the town council decided the memorial was too similar to a Christmas tree. Unidentified residents were offended by “an accompanying plaque [which] referred to Christmas and they were not Christians.”

Jesse Waters, a correspondent for The O’Reilly Factor, visited the town and confronted the council to defend the decision to remove the lights and city manager Dana Reed’s statement that the display was “tacky.” Lest this be mistaken for journalism, note in the video below we see far more of Waters’s smug questioning than any answers from the people he’s there to interview. Still, it does raise an interesting point about the validity of people’s offense.

The first right given to the people in the Bill of Rights is the right of free expression. It’s one of our most prized rights and perhaps the only truly powerful one we have left. Yet, the natural byproduct of free expression is that some people are going to be offended. To some, artists who display graphic images or vulgar language are necessary and important for culture, yet to others the very nature of their work is offensive. Conversely, there are those who find expressions of religious faith intolerable, but for those who believe, that expression is a vital part of their life. This diversity of opinion is important, and part of what makes America exceptional. We, as a society committed to freedom of speech, need to protect all forms of expression lest we diminish a necessary American value. 

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11Boise Idaho Latest City to Ban Panhandling

Everyone has seen it before: the filthy clothes, the piece of cardboard with a message scrawled on it in marker, and the ever-present cup of the panhandler. Sometimes it’s passive panhandling, simply sitting on the ground, or holding open a door for people without saying anything. Other times, it’s aggressive: chasing people down, engaging in long conversations, or running out into the street to passing motorists. Panhandlers are blatant reminders to both city officials and other citizens that the desperate are everywhere and no one knows what to do about it.

The city council in Boise, Idaho, may not know how to fix the problems of poverty and homelessness in their city, but they have taken steps to reduce the number of reminders people see each day. They passed a resolution that has banned aggressive panhandling and placed very strict limitations on where and how people might engage in the passive practice. There were about 40 people protesting the measure, singing “We Shall Overcome” and shouting their complaints.

Like many cities that have enacted such laws, officials hope to reduce the visibility of the homeless which they say is good for businesses and makes the area more enjoyable to visitors. In short, panhandlers make people uncomfortable. However, many of these laws have been ruled unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment.

However, this does not stop cities like Boise or Indianapolis, Indiana from considering such measures. In New York, their panhandling ban, known as the loitering law, was struck down as unconstitutional, yet law enforcement has still arrested so many using the law that panhandlers were given class-action status in 2007. It’s not just panhandlers that are affected by this law either, in 2009 an article from the First Amendment Center details how street performers may actually be classified as aggressive panhandlers. 

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11Student Barred from Distributing Copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day

Passing out free copies of the United States Constitution may seem like a reasonable way to celebrate Constitution Day; but in an apparent infringement of the Constitution’s own First Amendment, one California college prevented a student from doing just that.

On September 17, Robert Van Tuinen of Modesto Junior College reportedly stood outside the student resource center handing out pamphlets of the Constuition for approximately 10 minutes before campus police approached him and demanded that he cease.

According to college regulations, Tuinen was only permitted to hand out materials in the designated “free speech zone,” implying that free speech is unacceptable elsewhere at the school.

Even in the “free speech zone,” Tuinen would have needed to schedule the event days in advance, so he was unable to continue.

A video of the incident shows Tuinen asking, “Don’t I have free speech, sir?” after which a police officer informs him that he must leave, either willingly or forcibly.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) organization stepped in once they learned of the incident, and sent a letter to the college requesting an abandonment of current policies. The letter read:

“The video of Modesto Junior College police and administrators stubbornly denying a public college student’s right to freely pass out pamphlets to fellow students — copies of the Constitution, no less! — should send a chill down the spine of every American. Worse, FIRE’s research shows that Modesto Junior College is hardly alone in its fear of free speech. In fact, one in six of America’s 400 largest and most prestigious colleges have ‘free speech zones’ limiting where speech can take place. This video brings to life the deeply depressing reality of the climate for free speech on campus.”

According to the video, Tuinen was hoping to garner enough interest to start a chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty at his school. With this new publicity, the school may have inadvertently helped the student accomplish his goal.

Source: The Blaze, Fox News

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11Facebook "Likes" Are Now Protected As Free Speech Under The First Amendment

Facebook’s “Like” feature, the button that results in a blue thumbs-up icon indicating your support of a particular status, page, photo or other item on the social networking site, is now protected under the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, located in Richmond, VA, overturned a previous ruling that determined button-clicking did not constitute free speech because it is not a significant-enough act.  

The case began when Hampton, VA Sheriff BJ Roberts was running for re-election, The Verge reports. Roberts checked his opponent Jim Adam’s Facebook page and found that six employees of the police department had “liked” the page. Roberts subsequently fired those employees, four of whom were deputies.  

The initial case was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson on the grounds that the “Like” button did not necessarily correspond with a user’s personal feelings. “It is not the kind of substantive statement that has previously warranted constitutional protection. The Court will not attempt to infer the actual content of Carter’s posts from one click of a button on Adams’ Facebook page," Jackson said.

After protest from Facebook and the ACLU, the Court of Appeals reversed that ruling. The judges cited political signs, which are protected by the 1st Amendment, as a precedent, claiming that Facebook Likes are the “Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s yard.” The court also refuted the previous ruling’s claim that clicking a button was an insignificant act in the digital age. “That a user may use a single mouse click to produce that message that he likes the page instead of typing the same message with several individual key strokes is of no constitutional significance,” the ruling claimed.  

Now that this ruling has been clarified, employers such as Roberts will no longer be able to justifiably fire employees on the sole basis that they “liked” something that they found unfavorable. Facebook still has not rolled out a “Dislike” button, so users will have to exert a little more effort to express their 1st amendment-protected disapproval.

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