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Stand Up to Republican Bullies

Call off your dogs, Attorney General Holder. Don’t make Justice Antonin Scalia school you on the First Amendment.

When we were children, we were told we had to stand up to schoolyard bullies, and sometimes the only thing that would cause a bully to back off was to bloody his nose.

Nowadays, many schools have zero tolerance for fighting, and would send home both the bully and the bullied after a fisticuffs. That probably makes sense in this age of “Stand Your Ground” laws that allow a bully to pick a fight and then, if the victim throws a punch, the bully can pull a gun and shoot his opponent in “self defense.” But good people still need to call out bullies. Blessed are the peacemakers, as Jesus said, but it doesn’t hurt to know how to defend yourself, in case peace is not at hand.

The bullies have been at work in the legislatures of our nation, as Southern conservatives have consolidated their hold on the Republican Party and made their top priorities attacks on labor unions and minority voting rights.

The attacks on unions helped Republicans cripple one of the bulwarks of the Democratic organizational base — organized labor — in northern states and now voter ID laws which have been passed or are being advanced in 31 states are designed to keep minorities, students and low-income voters — who are much more likely to vote Democratic — away from the polls.

Republicans claim that voter ID laws, which require voters to produce certain state-issued photo IDs — generally drivers licenses and sometimes concealed weapons permits but not state university IDs — are designed to stop voter fraud, but 1) there is very little actual voter fraud and 2) the laws obviously are designed to make it more difficult for students, low-income workers and minorities, particularly in cities, where they are less likely to have a car than Republican voters are. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 10% of the general voting public lacks an adequate photo ID, but those figures rise to 15% of voting-age citizens making less than $35,000 a year, 18% of Americans over 65 and 25% of African Americans.

In Texas, the state estimated that as many as 796,000 registered voters lacked government-issued photo ID. To obtain those IDs, many would have to spend $22 to get a Texas birth certificate — and possibly more if they were born in other states. That could be considered a poll tax. Also, Texas has license offices in only 81 of 254 counties in the state; some voters would need to travel up to 250 miles to obtain a voter ID. Hispanic voters are twice as likely as whites not to have a car, so they wouldn’t have a driver license.

A federal court in Washington ruled in August 2012 that Texas’ voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act because it discriminated against minority voters. But two hours after the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the law, which had required the state to submit electoral changes for review, the Texas attorney general announced that the illegal voter ID law would be implemented.

If Republicans sincerely wanted to keep the vote honest, they would make a good-faith effort to issue voter IDs in inner cities, where potential voters are more likely to go without a car. Instead, Texas is opening six “mega center” offices — all in suburbs — to make it easier for suburban residents to renew their driver licenses. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker signed a strict voter ID law and then proposed to close DMV offices in Democratic areas, while increasing office hours in Republican areas.

North Carolina not only adopted a voter ID law; the legislature also eliminated same-day registration, reduced the early voting period and eliminated pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds. Republican-dominated local election boards have escalated attacks on student voting by shutting down polling places on college campus, preventing students from running for political offices and possibly challenging students’ rights to vote. A 1979 Supreme Court case, Symm v. US, affirmed the right of college students at historically black Prairie View A&M University, northwest of Houston, to vote in their campus communities. But Waller County officials still refuse to put a polling place on the Prairie View campus and there’s no telling whether today’s Supreme Court would uphold that 1979 reading of the law.

The US Department of Justice is moving to use the “bail-in relief” under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to bring Southern states with a history of interfering with voting rights, including Texas and North Carolina, back under judicial review.

In the meantime, civil rights groups should organize to make sure that black and Latino voters have photo IDs — making arrangements to transport them to the well-staffed suburban DMV offices, if necessary. While they’re at it, civil rights groups should help young voters also get concealed weapons permits, because nothing will get Republican lawmakers to reconsider Stand Your Ground laws like the prospect of a well-armed black and brown militia ready to respond with force.

But the best way to bloody the Republican bullies’ noses is with ballots, now that black and Hispanic and working-class voters know what is stake. Honest Republicans will make sure those ballots are allowed to be cast and counted — but the Voting Rights Act still empowers the Justice Department to look over their shoulders.

The First Amendment’s Broad Reach

There has been some debate as to whether Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald are journalists who should be protected by the First Amendment or spies who should be prosecuted — Assange for publishing then-Pvt. Bradley Manning’s leaks of hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic messages, or Greenwald, the columnist for the London-based Guardian, for enabling Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the wide-ranging surveillance of telephone and Internet messages by the National Security Agency. The US has a strong tradition of press freedom, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from calling for prosecution of both Greenwald and Assange.

The Justice Department has revamped its policies on news media in response to complaints about its covert seizure of phone records of reporters, Faiza Patel and Amos Toh of the Brennan Center for Justice wrote, but the guidelines still include what has been dubbed the “WikiLeaks exception”: Persons and entities that “simply make information available” are excluded from protection.

Patel and Toh wrote that “any attempt to distinguish between press outlets based on how responsible they are perceived to be is well down the slippery slope leading to official censorship. The Supreme Court has understood this risk, making it clear that while ‘[a] responsible press is an undoubtedly desirable goal, press responsibility is not mandated by the Constitution and, like many other virtues, it cannot be legislated.’ Similarly, a news outlet’s agenda doesn’t affect its right to publish. Except in cases of defamation, libel and obscenity, the right to publish is protected regardless of ‘motivation, orthodoxy, truthfulness, timeliness or taste.’ The First Amendment does not protect Assange any less because some believe him to be a celebrity-seeking megalomaniac. Nor does it discriminate against Glenn Greenwald because he is anti-establishment and activist.”

We agree with Patel and Toh that the First Amendment protects the New York Times (which published some of Manning’s disclosures) not because it is an American company, but because it provides a service to the nation: keeping people informed about the activities of their government so they can participate meaningfully in democratic decision-making. Foreign news sources [such as WikiLeaks and the Guardian] provide the same service and even enrich national debate in the US by providing an outside perspective, which the Internet makes as accessible to Americans as their hometown paper.

Assange and Greenwald may be arrogant, egocentric, narcissistic, stubborn and other terms of enragement in the eyes of authorities and other detractors, but these are not unusual attributes among investigative journalists. They are precisely the sort of troublemakers the Founders intended to protect, because they are the ones most likely to incur enemies in high places.

Call off your dogs, Attorney General Holder. Don’t make Justice Antonin Scalia school you on the First Amendment.

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