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Federal Judge Thwarts Conservative Efforts To Kill Ethnic Studies

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

 

An Arizona federal judge has struck down a state law banning ethnic studies programs as being racially discriminatory. The ruling was a big victory for advocates and educatorswho argued that the ban, passed by Republicans in 2010, unfairly targeted Latino students in the state and kept them from learning about their history.

Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled on Tuesday that HB 2281—which shuttered Tucson’s Mexican American studies program as a result—violated students’ rights, including the Equal Protection Clause of the14th Amendment and the students’ First Amendment “right to receive information and ideas.”

“Both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus,” Tashima said in his decision.

The lawsuit centered on HB 2281, which banned courses promoting “the overthrow of the United States 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.” The court case was brought forthby a group of students against Arizona’s top education official.

Tashima’s decision presents a victory for ethnic studies advocates and local grassroots organizations such as United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies (U.N.I.D.O.S.) who have argued that banning the Mexican American studies program directly targeted and discriminated against Mexican American students. The Tucson district’s Mexican American studies program, which was first implemented in 1998, was the only ethnic studies program in the state that was impacted by HB 2281. Similar ethnic studies curriculum were unaffected.

Tashima heavily criticized John Huppenthal and Tom Horne, former Arizona state superintendents of public education, arguing that their attacks on the ethnic studies program were politically motivated. Huppenthal once said the fight between HB 2281 and Mexican American studies is like “the battle between collectivism and individualism” that “defines the human race,” according to the Huffington Post.

“Defendants were pursuing these discriminatory ends in order to make political gains,” Tashima wrote. “Horne and Huppenthal repeatedly pointed to their efforts against the program in their respective 2011 political campaigns, including in speeches and radio advertisements. The issue was a political boon to the candidates.”

The push to ban the Mexican American studies program was first sparked by comments made by Dolores Huerta in a speech to Tucson High Magnet School about anti-immigrant legislation. Huerta asked the students to address “why Republicans hate Latinos.”

Huppenthal, Thorne and other Republican lawmakers who supported the law argued that the Mexican American studies program “taught Latinos to hate other races.” However, a state-commissioned audit by Cambium Learning Group found “no observable evidence” that the program had violated HB 2281. Huppenthal rejected these findings. Another 2012 study found that the Mexican American studies program had a positive impact on students who took those classes by boosting performance on state tests and increasing graduation rates.

“If student achievement really matters, it was clear from the study that we did that Mexican American studies needs to be a part of the experience in this kind of conversation,” said Jeffrey Millem, professor and dean of the Gevirtz Graduate School at the University of California Santa Barbara who worked on the 2012 study. Millem said that many of the students were part of the lowest-performing group in the district prior to taking MAS courses. The study found that after taking MAS classes, these students had some of the highest graduation rates of any group.

HB 2281 passed the same year as SB 1070, the anti-immigrant law requiring police “to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained” if there was reasonable suspicion they were an undocumented immigrant. Both laws fueled an anti-immigrant environment sweeping across the state at the time.

Ever since the Tucson public school district was forced to terminate the Mexican American studies program in 2012 amid threats of losing ten percent of its funding, groups such as U.N.I.D.O.S. and Librotraficantes have fought back against the law by educating students about ethnic studies and providing books that were banned by the Arizona law.

Judge Tashima’s ruling reinforces what students who participated in the ethnic studies program had been saying for years. Leo Herrera, who learned about the Maya and the Aztec Empire, as well as prominent Latin American activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, while in elementary school and middle school in Tucson, credits the program with making his education more meaningful.

“If it wasn’t for the Mexican American studies program…me and my homies would either be locked up or we’d be dead or in jail,” he said. “Because no one, except for those MAS teachers, made us feel like we really had a place in society given the state that we live in.”

With HB 2281 struck down in court, the school district now has the freedom to decide if it will implement the ethnic studies program once more in public schools. According to the Los Angeles Times, Richard Martinez, an attorney on the case, said the judge would determine how the decision should be enforced through hearings.

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

 

These Two Supreme Court Cases Protect Police Who Use Excessive Force

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

To the dismay of Black Lives Matter activists and criminal justice advocates, juries often decline to convict police officers for excessive use of force.

St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez is one such example. In June, a jury acquitted Yanez of all charges including second-degree manslaughter for the fatal shooting of Philando Castile during a failed traffic stop last year. His acquittal reflects a larger trend in which officers are rarely held accountable during police violence cases. A New York Times analysis of 15 high-profile cases found that only two resulted in a conviction or guilty plea.

There are numerous systemic barriers that historically hinder police accountability. Statutes found in police union contracts and police bills of rights, for instance, often protect officers at the expense of holding them accountable for their actions. But perhaps one of the strongest barriers to police accountability is enshrined in two precedent-setting Supreme Court cases.

In 1985, the Supreme Court heard the case Tennessee v. Garner, in which a Memphis police officer shot an unarmed teenager following a house burglary. The court evaluated whether the officer’s deadly use of force was a violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure.

The Supreme Court concluded in Tennessee v. Garner that an officer’s use of deadly force must be based on probable cause and should be reasonable.

“Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force,” the court wrote in its opinion.

Davis Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in police issues and the host of the podcast Criminal (In)justice, calls the use of deadly force the “ultimate seizure.”

The reasonableness standard was further defined in the 1989 Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, in which a physical altercation took place between a man having an insulin reaction and police officers who assumed the man was drunk and attempted to arrest him. Here the Supreme Court established that the “reasonableness” of an officer’s use of force must be judged through the perspective of a “reasonable officer on the scene” and must take into account the fact that “officers are forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.”

“I think as a legal standard it is so open and so favorable to police that it’s a big part of the reason we get the results that we do when a case goes to trial,” Harris noted.

Because of the objective reasonableness standard established in Graham v. Connor, jurors such as the ones in the Yanez case are asked to evaluate an officer’s actions based on the particular circumstances of the case. External factors like a police department’s policies are not taken into account.

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio following Yanez’s acquittal, an anonymous juror said the jury was at first too nitpicky in analyzing Yanez’s interaction with Castile, leading to a deadlock in the first week of deliberations.

“One of the things they told us we couldn’t take into account was this hindsight 20/20,” the juror told MPR. “And that’s what a lot of us, some of us, kept doing. We kept saying an officer’s training or what we would do in the situation, and you know, nobody really knows how a human is gonna react.”

The openness of objective reasonableness allows defense teams to craft an argument that attempts to justify the officer’s actions and sway the jury in his favor. In his testimony, Yanez said the smell of marijuana made him fear for his life—a defense that has commonly been employed by other officers in a criminal case. Harris said this type of fear defense is often successful in fulfilling the objectively reasonable standard and can convince juries to give the officer the benefit of the doubt.

“This isn’t for us to second-guess in the sense that we would see it through our own eyes,” Harris said. “We look at it through the eyes of the police officer in the fast-moving and dangerous circumstances in which he or she may find themselves.”

Another factor influencing jurors’ general deferment to police under the objective reasonableness standard is the public’s overall positive outlook on law enforcement. Surveys conducted by Gallup and the Pew Research Center in 2016 show that Americans have an overall positive outlook on police. Harris said it can be difficult for jurors to contradict the long-held perception that officers are to be respected and trusted.

“They’re going to see police officers as people who try to help, who try to protect, who do their best in a terribly risky situation,” he said. “If you’re asking a jury to convict a police officer, you’re taking that narrative and flipping it on its head.”

However, a breakdown of race reveals a wide perception gap between whites and blacks on law enforcement. The same 2016 Pew study found that black people do not think as highly of police as white people do; 33 percent of blacks believe the police always use the right amount of force in each situation, compared to 75 percent of whites.

These disparities in perception can trickle down into the courtroom and could impact the outcome of a criminal case involving lethal use of force, but only if white people and black people are proportionally represented in jury pools. This was not the case in Yanez’s trial (the 15-person jury was made up of 13 white jurors and only two people of color) and it is not the case for trials involving officer use of force writ large.

Further analysis from the Huffington Post of 13 trials involving police shootings between August 2014 and December 2016 found that “majority-white juries decided 11 of those 13 cases.” Three of those 11 majority-white juries returned not-guilty verdicts, and another four resulted in mistrials due to a hung jury. The Huffington Post also found that the racial makeup of the jury was not reflective of the local community’s demographics, potentially tilting the jury’s decision-making process more to one side than the other.

While the objective reasonableness standard has remained the precedent for evaluating officer use of force since 1989, the public scrutiny of police violence incidents has only grown, with more incidents garnering national media attention. But if criminal justice and police reform advocates want to change the standard by which officers are judged in court, one formidable obstacle stands in their way: the Supreme Court. Even Harris is doubtful that the standard could be changed, noting that the Supreme Court has generally been protective of police regardless of the court’s ideological makeup.

“I say that because the makeup of the Supreme Court is basically status quo in terms of where the votes are for what kinds of positions are on these issues,” Harris said. “For the last 10 years it really hasn’t changed all that much, and now with the Gorsuch confirmation, it really kind of stays the same.”

So far this year, 581 people have been shot and killed by law enforcement, according to the Washington Post’s database. Should any of the officers involved in those incidents be brought to trial, the objective reasonableness standard will undoubtedly play a role in how they are judged. If that standard ultimately influences the jury to acquit the officer, it will inevitably reveal the divide between those who support police and those who want accountability.

“Obviously when you have the law that is clearly tilted in one direction,” Harris said, “you’re not always going to get something that looks like justice to everyone.”

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

Capitol Police Crack Down On The Media

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Chants of “Kill the bill, don’t kill us” echoed through the Senate visitor galleries Tuesday afternoon while lawmakers cast votes to move forward on debate surrounding the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Capitol police officers arrested a number of protesters, many of them members of the disability rights group ADAPT, and even admonished some journalists who were covering the demonstration to stop taking photos and videos.

According to multiple tweet reports from journalists present at the galleries, Capitol police demanded that journalists—including those from the Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and the New York Post—delete photos and videos of the demonstration.

Huffington Post reporter Jennifer Bendery said journalists were barred from hallways where officers were arresting activists and demonstrators, adding that an officer pushed her.

One Capitol Hill staff member said the area was a “crime scene” and told journalists not to take photos, according to Gabby Morrongiello, Washington bureau chief of the New York Post.

In defending the actions of police Tuesday, Senate Daily Press stated in a tweet that “photos and videos are prohibited on the third floor of the Senate wing of the Capitol, and have been for decades.” Joseph Morton, reporter for the Omaha World-Herald and secretary of the Senate gallery’s standing committee of correspondents, also reiterated the no-photos rule.

These reports have drawn criticism from the ACLU, as the organization said via Twitter that police cannot delete photographs without a warrant. Further reporting from the Columbia Journalism Review notes that journalists are protected by the First Amendment to document what occurs in public spaces as well as the Fourth Amendment “against unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons and equipment.” The Privacy Protection Act also protects journalists by requiring law enforcement to obtain a subpoena to search or seize a journalist’s materials, including photos and videos.

“Similarly, calling a public space a ‘crime scene’ does not magically transform it into something that cannot be photographed and whose images must be deleted,” CJR continued.

Attempts to muzzle journalists in the Capitol have proliferated in recent months and are undoubtedly bolstered by President Trump’s constant berating of news outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times as part of the “fake news” media. Last month, in the midst of Republican senators secretly drafting a health care bill, reporters were temporarily barred from interviewing senators in the hallways. The Senate Rules Committee quickly reversed the rule following fierce outcry from the media. That same month, a female reporter was kicked out of the White House for reportedly breaking House dress code rules. And prior to his resignation, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer prohibited on-camera press briefings multiple times.

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

Trump Decrees On Twitter That Transgender People Are Now Banned From Military Service

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

President Donald Trump announced via Twitter on Wednesday morning that transgender people are banned from serving in the U.S. military.

According to a 2016 study by the Rand Corporation commissioned by the Department of Defense, there are about 11,000 transgender people in active duty and the reserves. Despite Trump’s claim that transgender people are a “burden” to the military, the Rand study found that allowing transgender people to serve openly “would have a minimal impact on readiness and health care costs.”

The study estimated about 30 to 140 hormone treatments per year in the military along with an estimated 25 to 130 gender transition-related surgeries for those in active service. The cost of these medical procedures, the study found, could range from $2.4 million to $8.4 million, which the study said would be “an exceedingly small proportion of total healthcare expenditures.”

Trump’s announcement has drawn criticism from a number of LGBT-rights and civil rights organizations, including the ACLU. A number of politicians have also come out against Trump’s ban. California Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu said in a statement that Trump’s exclusion of transgender people in the military is “based on naked bigotry,” not facts.

“I know because I served on active duty,” Lieu said. “The military doesn’t care what your sexual orientation or identity is, or who you love. It cares about whether you can shoot straight and complete the mission. The president’s discriminatory decision harms our military readiness for our volunteer-based military. Thousands of transgender Americans are already in the military. Why? Because they are qualified, patriotic and willing to die for their country. There is zero evidence a transgender sniper would be any less qualified than a gay sniper or a straight sniper. Today is a sad day for America.”

Trump’s announcement reverses a policy introduced during the Obama administration and approved by the Defense Department that would allow transgender people to openly serve in the military. Implementation of the policy, which was still under final review, was delayed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis last month. The delay, requested by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would last six months with a review due by December showcasing how allowing transgender people to serve in the military “would affect the military’s lethality,” according to the Washington Post.

Mattis said in a memo about the decision that the six-month delay “in no way presupposes an outcome,” but that more time was needed to finalize a decision.

“Since becoming the Secretary of Defense, I have emphasized that the Department of Defense must measure each policy decision against one critical standard: will the decision affect the readiness and lethality of the force?” Mattis stated in the memo. “Put another way, how will the decision affect the ability of America’s military to defend the nation? It is against this standard that I provide the following guidance on the way forward in accessing transgender individuals into the military services.”

Trump’s announcement marks another blow against the transgender community. In February, the Trump administration reversed another Obama-era guideline instructing public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Upon revoking the directive, Trump invoked states’ rights and said public schools should be able to establish their own decisions regarding the issue.

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Former CIA Director To White House Officials: Defy Any Trump Order To Fire Mueller

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Former CIA Director John Brennan, in a vocal and unapologetic rebuke to Trump, said White House officials should refuse orders to fire special counsel Robert Mueller if ordered to do so by President Donald Trump.

During an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at the Aspen Security Forum, Brennan said:

“I think it’s the obligation of some executive branch officials to refuse to carry that out. I would just hope that this is not going to be a partisan issue. That Republicans, Democrats are going to see that the future of this government is at stake and something needs to be done for the good of the future.”

Rumors have been floating around about Trump’s  considerations to fire Mueller and derail his investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collaboration with Russia during the presidential election. On July 21, The Washington Post reported that some of Trump’s lawyers are attempting to build a case against Mueller by highlighting his conflicts of interest. And in addition to floating the idea of firing Mueller, Trump has also reportedly asked about the power to pardon aides and family members.

Both Brennan and James Clapper, former director of national intelligence who also attended the Aspen Security Forum, had worked with Mueller when he was head of the FBI. Brennan and Clapper praised Mueller, calling him a “straight shooter.” Brennan said he hopes politicians and lawmakers stand up to Trump if he fires Mueller.

“I really hope that members of Congress and elected representatives are going to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough,’ and stop making apologies and excuses for things that are happening that I think flout our system of government.”

Watch the video below via CNN:

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

Trump Is Obsessed With His Twitter Following — Too Bad Most Of His Followers Are Fake

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

President Donald Trump loves to brag about his Twitter following. As more revelations brewed around the Trump campaign’s possible involvement with Russia, Trump tweeted on June 17 about his overall social media following: 100 million strong, or so he claims, and Twitter of course being his favorite method of communication

A quick glance at Trump’s actual number of Twitter followers tells a different story, however; while president brags of about 34 million followers, the truth is far different. According to an analysis by Socialbakers in June for CNN Tech, one analytics tool estimates that 11.6 million of Trump’s 32 million Twitter followers are either dormant or accounts run by bots.

“The analysis run by Twitter Audit, which estimates how many of an account’s following is made up of real people, gave Trump a 40 percent audit score and found that about 20 million of his followers are fake. Status People, another site that rates the authenticity of Twitter followers, found that 5 percent of Trump’s followers are fake and another 91 percent are inactive.

That Trump seemingly has more fake followers than real ones can be attributed to the existence of bots, an umbrella term referring to accounts with no profile picture and no tweets. A quick scroll through the most recent followers on the @realDonaldTrump account shows a number of accounts with Twitter’s default profile picture and no tweets, that seemed to have joined Twitter very recently.

Amassing bot followers is fairly easy. One only has to pay a certain amount of money, and voila, one has an instant bump in following count. A New York Times article by Nick Bilton describes the social media bot industry as a “giant pyramid scheme” often used by big-name brands, A-list celebrities and regular people seeking a “social media ego boost.”

Of course, Trump is not the only famous figure to have fake followers or bots. Politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama also have bots following their verified Twitter accounts. The rub is that Trump’s account seems to have a larger number of bots and presumably fake accounts than any other politicians on Twitter—in comparison, Barack Obama received a 90 percent audit score from Twitter Audit, Hillary Clinton was given a 52 percent audit score and Sen. Bernie Sanders garnered an 89 percent score.

According to the Washington Post, academic research in 2016 found that bots supporting Trump “massively outperformed the bots supporting Clinton” by a 5 to 1 margin days before Election Day. The research paper found that 81.9 percent of “highly automated” accounts carried some form of pro-Trump messaging.

The fact that so many of Trump’s followers are ghost accounts made solely to amplify the president’s message should undermine his own unabashed boastfulness that he’s speaking to 100 million people each time he goes on one of his uncensored and often deleterious tweetstorms. But if the president has one quality that is painfully obvious, it is his penchant for attention and his constant hunger for validation; it’s his whole brand. Those millions of Twitter followers and hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets serve as Trump’s affirmation, a co-sign from the public that he is indeed popular and powerful. After all, Trump has built his entire career, including his rise to the presidency, on popularity and a brazen wielding of power whenever it suits him.

If Trump is aware of the bots and fake accounts he has spawned, he’s done a fairly good job at hiding it. Of course, even if Trump were aware of his pooling of bots, he would decry these reports with his favorite phrase: “fake news.” For a man whose ego is so fragile that he would even fabricate his own inauguration audience numbers, Trump needs those tens of millions of followers so much that he’ll even throw out a number like 100 million just to assert his dominance without even a simple fact check.

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

These Top Prosecutors Are Threatening Legal Action Against Betsy DeVos

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has recently drawn criticism for lending an ear to men’s rights groups and individuals advocating for the rights of those accused of rape, causing worry that the secretary of education may roll back Obama-era guidelines on how colleges should handle sexual assault.

Among those speaking out in alarm are 20 Democratic attorneys general from 19 states and the District of Columbia who collectively wrote a letter to DeVos on Wednesday demanding she keep the Obama administration’s Title IX guidelines on sexual assault in place, according to Buzzfeed News. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who organized the letter, told Buzzfeed News that the 20 attorneys general were “prepared to take legal action” to protect Title IX and rape victims.

“The 20 AGs who signed that letter were putting Secretary DeVos on notice that we support the current regulations, and if she rolls them back, then she will have us to deal with further,” Shapiro said. “We’ll see what actions she takes. What I can tell you is we are committed to ensuring these protections stay in place. And if need be, we’ll take legal action to try and protect victims.”

In the letter, the state attorneys general ask DeVos to keep in place the guidelines outlined in the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter affirming that sexual assault is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX. The letter also demands that DeVos does not rescind a 2014 document expanding on the 2011 directives issued by the White House campus rape task force.

“While we recognize that there is a great deal more that can be done to protect students and agree on the importance of ensuring that investigations are conducted fairly, a rushed, poorly considered effort to roll back current policies sends precisely the wrong message to all students,” the letter reads. “Yet there is every indication that is exactly the approach your Department is taking.”

A portion of the letter also takes issue at comments Candice Jackson, acting assistant secretary for civil rights, made to the New York Times, in which she claimed that 90 percent of campus sexual assault allegations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk.’” Jackson later apologized and said her comment was “flippant,” but not before Democratic Sen. Patty Murray called for her resignation.

While the letter did not explicitly demand Jackson’s resignation, the attorneys general wrote that they “have serious concerns as to whether Ms. Jackson can be entrusted to oversee a fair, thorough process in evaluating the Department’s policies in this area.”

Several of the groups DeVos met with last week, including the National Coalition for Men and Families Advocating for Campus Equality, allege that the Obama-era Title IX directives provide harsh guidelines encouraging colleges to circumvent due process protections for students accused of sexual assault. Despite rhetorical attempts to paint the accused as victims, research has shown that only between 2 and 10 percent of rape accusations are false.

While groups advocating for the rights of the accused now have a sympathetic ear in the White House, the reality is that 88 percent of women who experience sexual assault still do not report the incident, according to the Cambridge University Student Union’s women’s campaign survey. For the women who do come forward, the investigations into their cases—whether conducted by law enforcement or the university—are often convoluted and emotionally and mentally draining. On the other hand, accused rapists rarely face conviction, and those who do often receive the equivalent of a slap on the wrist: Accused Stanford rapist Brock Turner received a mere three months for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.

 

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Crucial Court Case Could Spell Doom For Ethnic Studies In Public Schools

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Throughout elementary school and middle school, Leo Herrera received a different kind of social studies curriculum. In addition to learning the basics of U.S. history—the discovery of America, the founding fathers, the Revolutionary War—Herrera learned about prominent Latin American activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and indigenous groups like the Maya and the Aztec Empire.

“To me, that was just really cool to be able to like go into class and read books and see pictures of people who look like me who were actually making a difference,” Herrera said. “It wasn’t just opening up a social studies book and seeing a bunch of old white dudes.”

Herrera’s exposure to Latin American history at an early age is credited to the Mexican American studies program, which began in Tucson, Arizona in 1998 to offer a school curriculum through the lens of Mexican Americans. Primarily driving the adoption of MAS was a desegregation order against the Tucson school district filed by black and Latino parents arguing that the district’s demographics “promoted intentional segregation and unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.” The MAS program included a collection of books from Mexican American authors and other writers of color. Developers of the MAS curriculum hoped the focus on Mexican American and Latin American history would bridge the gap between Latinos and other students in the Tucson district.

But the program that had a lasting impact on Herrera’s education now hangs in the balance, as a case being tried in a federal district court in Arizona is evaluating the constitutionality of the state law prohibiting ethnic and Mexican American studies.

First Success, Then Backlash

In a city where Hispanics make up about 41 percent of the population—the second largest demographic next to white people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—and Hispanics make up about 60 percent of the student population in the Tucson Unified School District, the MAS program quickly took off. The expansion of the program over the next 13 years saw the enrollment of an estimated 1,300 students in MAS classes in elementary, middle and high schools.

Despite the program’s success across the district, a group of Republican lawmakers set out to undermine its influence. Backlash against MAS is primarily rooted in a 2006 speech Dolores Huerta gave to students at Tucson High Magnet School. Speaking about the anti-immigrant legislation taking shape during those years, Huerta told students to address “why Republicans hate Latinos.”

According to Mother Jones:

The comment stuck with Thomas Horne, then the superintendent of public instruction for Arizona’s Department of Education. When students weren’t allowed to ask questions at a meeting with Horne’s deputy, some raised their fists and turned their backs in protest. In an open letter to Tucson residents following the speech, Horne criticized the Mexican American studies program for teaching students “a kind of destructive ethnic chauvinism” and blamed teachers for the students’ actions.

During testimony July 18, Horne said he was troubled by “radical instructors teaching students to be disruptive,” according to the Associated Press.

A group of Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. John Huppenthal, drafted HB 2281 to ban MAS in the Tucson Unified School District. The purpose of the bill was to ban courses that “promote the overthrow of the United States 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.”

HB 2281 passed in the Republican-dominated state legislature in 2010, the same year as the passing of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigration law SB 1070. Herrera said both HB 2281 and SB 1070 contributed to an “anti-brown, anti-immigrant climate” at the time.

The only program affected by HB 2281 was Tucson’s MAS program—similar curricula focusing on Asian, black and Native American cultures escaped the ban, according to the Atlantic. The bill immediately instigated widespread protest from teachers, students and parents, and a group of teachers filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that eliminating MAS violated students’ First Amendment Rights.

In January 2011, before leaving his role as state superintendent and becoming state attorney general, Thomas Horne announced that the MAS program violated HB 2281 and ordered the Tucson district to end the program or risk losing 10 percent of state funding.

“When I came into a classroom, they were portraying Ben Franklin as a racist,” Huppenthal said upon visiting an ethnic studies class in Tucson. He added, “[A]nd up on the wall, they got a poster of Che Guevara.”

Despite assertions echoed by Republican supporters of the bill—some claimed the MAS curriculum “taught Latino students to hate other races”—a state-commissioned audit by the Cambium Learning Group found “no observable evidence” that MAS had violated state law HB 2281. Huppenthal, who became Horne’s successor, rejected the finding. After a second investigation into the program, Huppenthal reiterated that it violated state law, this time threatening to withhold state funding from the Tucson school district if it did not terminate the program.

Facing pressure to eliminate MAS in lieu of losing 10 percent of state funding, the Tucson school board voted to end the curriculum in January 2012. And when District Judge A. Wallace Tashima evaluated HB 2281 in relation to the MAS program in 2013, he upheld most of the law and said the students in the case failed to prove the law was passed with discriminatory intent. In July 2015, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the Tucson district court, arguing that enough evidence warranted another trial to determine if HB 2281 was motivated by discriminatory intent.

Presided over once again by Judge Tashima, the current court case challenges the constitutionality of HB 2281 as well as its enforcement under the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause.

The Fight for Mexican American Studies

Since the passing of HB 2281 and the ensuing court battle, a number of grassroots and community organizations have emerged to lead the fight for the continuance of the MAS program. One of the most prominent of these activist groups is United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies (UNIDOS). During a Tucson Unified School District meeting considering the removal of Mexican American studies from a list of classes that fulfill core curriculum requirements, UNIDOS activists stormed the meeting. The young activists sat among the board members and chained themselves in place. “When education is under attack, what do we do?” they chanted. “Fight back!”

Leo Herrera joined the group during his senior year of high school when UNIDOS was conducting outreach to inform students that the MAS program had been banned.

“I jumped right on it and started organizing with UNIDOS, just because I want to make… accessible to students the education that was made accessible to me, but was taken away from me,” he said.

UNIDOS began visiting a number of colleges across the country to host talks about the court battle. In 2015, the group began its student empowerment program, which has become one of the group’s main focuses along with keeping up with the current trial between the state and Mexican American studies.

Herrera describes the student empowerment program as “an after-school program for high school youth who are interested in social justice and the Mexican American studies program.” He said UNIDOS would go to high schools, talk about MAS and then host workshops on topics such as rape culture and the war on drugs, a discussion Herrera hosted. Herrera called the organization’s student empowerment program a “stepping stone in ethnic studies.”

Another group of Chicano writers, poets, artists and activists from Houston organized in support of MAS by busing all the books banned by the termination of the program under HB 2281 to Tucson. The group called itself Librotraficante—book smugglers.

Librotraficante quickly raised money for the trip to Arizona and received donations from people across the U.S. and even from the banned authors themselves. The group traveled across the southwest, from San Antonio to El Paso, Texas and Albuquerque, New Mexico, then finally reaching Tucson. The book smugglers, including Texas author and professor Tony Diaz, gave books to former MAS students and established a library at a local youth center filled with the banned books. In anticipation of other states possibly pulling similar moves as Arizona and banning ethnic studies programs, Librotraficante created underground libraries across the southwest.

Diaz told the Atlantic that Arizona has been “oppressing Mexican-Americans for years.”

“And they were used to bullying and controlling immigrants, and they wanted to control our thoughts,” he said. “They were wrong. I’m a Mexican American citizen with a master’s. I know my rights.”

More Good Than Harm

Although conservatives like Huppenthal and Horne decry the MAS program—Huppenthal once said the fight between HB 2281 and Mexican American studies is like “the battle between collectivism and individualism” that “defines the human race,” according to the Huffington Post—past studies show the benefits of ethnic studies programs in schools.

2012 study from University of Arizona professor Nolan Cabrera found that students who took MAS courses “performed better on state tests and graduated at higher rates” than students who did not. Jeffrey Milem, professor and dean of the Gevirtz Graduate School at the University of California Santa Barbara who worked on the 2012 study, said many of the students were part of the lowest-performing group in the district prior to taking MAS courses. The study found that after taking MAS classes, these students had some of the highest graduation rates of any group.

The study also showed that students who participated in MAS were more likely to pass Arizona’s standardized test for high school students, the AIMS test. In addition, researchers found that the students actually scored higher on the math portion of the AIMS test, reflecting what Milem called a “residual effect” of taking MAS courses as well as the value of the program itself.

“If student achievement really matters, it was clear from the study that we did that Mexican American studies needs to be a part of the experience in this kind of conversation,” Milem said.

The researchers concluded that having a curriculum like MAS offers a method to address the performance gap in Arizona schools that disproportionately impacts Latino students.

“MAS represents one option that meets the state superintendent’s requirement for investing in educational innovation with an empirically supported record of success,” the study reads. “Currently there are few approaches to educating Latina/o students that hold as much promise, but racial politics continue to overshadow a needed focus on student achievement.”

Herrera’s own experiences further corroborate these findings, as he noted the positive impact MAS had on his education.

“If it wasn’t for the Mexican American studies program…me and my homies would either be locked up or we’d be dead or in jail,” he said. “Because no one, except for those MAS teachers, made us feel like we really had a place in society given the state that we live in.”

Another study conducted by researchers at Stanford University evaluated the impact of ethnic studies on a group of ninth-graders at San Francisco high schools from 2010-2014. The findings showed significant improvements for students with risk of dropping out, especially boys and Hispanic students, marked by better attendance, higher grade point averages and more earned credits counting toward graduation.

Herrera said the MAS program in Tucson inspired more students to pursue a college education.

“The MAS program was there to push us to continue our education no matter what the barriers were in front of us,” he said.

The success of Mexican American studies in Arizona has influenced teachers in other states to push for similar curriculum. The fight to develop more ethnic studies programs in California schools was primarily led by Jose Lara, a Los Angeles social studies teacher at Santee Education Complex High School. After establishing an ethnic studies course in his district, the district then made those classes mandatory to graduate. Five school districts in California now require ethnic studies, and 11 other districts offer ethnic studies as an elective. Even California Gov. Jerry Brown jumped on board last year when he signed into law a bill that would “develop a model curriculum for ethnic studies” in high schools across the state.

“It was an idea whose time had come,” Lara told the Atlantic. “The ban in Arizona lit a fire for everyone here to think, hey, we should be doing something about this.”

In Texas, members of Librotraficante lobbied and petitioned for Mexican American studies to be offered across the state. The group’s advocacy paid off, as the Texas State Board of Education allowed interested schools to offer ethnic studies classes to students.

A new law that took effect in Indiana at the start of July now requires high schools to offer at least one ethnic studies course as an elective at least once every school year.

Herrera said “culturally relevant curriculum” has taken the place of MAS, but that these classes lack the critical focus on race theory and pedagogy that were integral to the original MAS program. As the trial of MAS and HB 2281 enters its second week, Herrera is hopeful that the result will be favorable for UNIDOS and the many teachers, parents and students who have been fighting for the program for the past six years.

The continued fight for MAS reflects similar goals held by the civil rights movement, when activists in the 1960s began actively pushing for the adoption of ethnic studies in colleges and universities. With traditional U.S. history and social studies curriculum often sanitizing U.S. history at the expense of the stories of black people, Native Americans and other communities of color, programs like Arizona’s Mexican American studies offer students like Herrera a chance to learn more about their culture and history.

“Not having it in itself is a more controversial thing,” Herrera said. “Because just allowing one side—these super one-sided views on these sorts of matters—it really just strips us of our identity.”

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Will The Federal Government Make It Illegal To Protest Israel?

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

A growing number of Republicans and Democrats in Congress are backing a bill that would criminalize support for the international boycott against Israel, also known as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Named the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, the bill so far has garnered support from 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats in the Senate. A similar piece of legislation introduced in the House of Representatives has 237 co-sponsors—63 Democrats and 174 Republicans. With the intent to suppress the BDS movement and others allied with the boycott against Israel, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act imposes harsh punishments: any person guilty of violating the law faces a “minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.”

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act was introduced by Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin on March 23 and was drafted with the help of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. In fact, passage of the bill was listed as one of the group’s top lobbying priorities for 2017.

The bill would build upon two laws, the Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945, the former law making it illegal for U.S. corporations to cooperate with the boycott of Israel. The Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance under the Department of Commerce was created to enforce this very measure.

In addition to its already draconian felony punishments, the law would penalize people for requesting information about boycotts against Israel and would extend the boycott ban into any parts of Israel, including the settlements that were deemed to violate international law by the United Nations. The act would also expand upon the prohibition of partaking in boycotts sponsored by foreign governments to include boycotts from international organizations like the U.N. and the European Union.

On July 17, the American Civil Liberties Union published a letter it sent to all senators urging them to not support the bill on the basis that “it would punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs.” While the ACLU clarified that it takes no position on the international boycott of Israel, the statement asserts that, under the First Amendment, the government cannot punish people just because of their “expressed political beliefs.”

The ACLU statement further criticizes the bill for specifically singling out businesses and individuals who do not do any business with Israel for expressed political beliefs.

“There are millions of businesses and individuals who do no business with Israel, or with companies doing business there, for a number of reasons,” the statement reads.

The statement notes that the bill ignores those companies that choose not to do business with Israel purely for pragmatic reasons outside of political belief, instead punishing “businesses and individuals based solely on their point of view.”

This is not the first time lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum have attempted to infringe on First Amendment rights with the goal of silencing supporters of the BDS movement. Many college students in recent years have faced punishment for expressing support for Palestine and the BDS movement and for pushing their college administrations to cut ties with corporations that conduct business with Israel.

In 2015, members of the Board of Regents who oversee the University of California system—along with support from University president Janet Napolitano—attempted to pass speech codes that would severely crack down on forms of Israel criticism and anti-Israeli activism. Students at any UC campus violating the speech codes would be faced with suspension or even expulsion.

This March, the New York State Senate passed two bills that would strip funding from students and college organizations that participate in “hate speech related to Israel” or partake in boycotts of “Israel and American allied nations.” A third bill passed that same week would prohibit the state from contracting with or investing in businesses that support the BDS movement.

Ironically enough, a number of the bill’s supporters include Democratic lawmakers who have positioned themselves as leaders of the anti-Trump resistance. California Sen. Ted Lieu, who is one of the bill’s co-sponsors, has previously championed the protection of civil liberties and announced he would send monthly donations to the ACLU to resist Trump. New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, the latter of whom has been floated as a potential 2020 contender to Trump, have also co-sponsored the bill despite their purported support of civil liberties.

It also seems that a number of Senate Democrats have blindly backed a bill they have little knowledge of, according to inquiries sent to co-sponsors of the bill by the Intercept. When told of the ACLU’s letter, Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan said, “What’s the Act? You’ll have to get back to me on that.” Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez from New Jersey, considered a reliable congressional ally to AIPAC, told the Intercept, “I’d want to read it….I’d have to look at it.”

With politicians providing lip service to protecting civil liberties and First Amendment rights, it is baffling and alarming that so many of these “free speech advocates” would throw support behind a bill that is not shy about its intent to punish people for their political beliefs.

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Jared Kushner Under Investigation For Helping Coordinate Russian Cyberattacks: Bombshell Report

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

The House and Senate Intelligence Committees and the Justice Department are now investigating whether the Trump campaign assisted Russia in targeting voters and spreading fake news about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election.

According to McClatchy, investigators are specifically evaluating if the digital operation headed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner directed Russian cyber operatives to particular voting jurisdictions in key states where support for Clinton was waning. Investigators are also probing whether the Trump campaign helped Russia release thousands of emails from Democratic leaders through Wikileaks.

A Russian cyberattack during the campaign of “unprecedented scale and sophistication” spread fake news about Clinton to the Twitter and Facebook accounts of millions of voters. The operation used computer commands called bots to expand the reach of negative and fake news about Clinton, including a fabricated piece claiming the Democratic nominee ran a pedophile ring at a Washington pizzeria.

Russian bots were at work during the primaries as well. According to FBI special agent Clint Watts, human “trolls” were employed to post positive comments about Trump in news stories and on social media.

California representative Adam Schiff from the House Intelligence Committee told McClatchy he wants to know if the Trump campaign helped Russia “time its cyberattacks or target certain voters, and whether there was any exchange of information, any financial support funneled to organizations that were doing this kind of work.”

Kushner, who is now a senior adviser to the president, is currently the only White House aide deemed a person of interest in the Justice Department’s investigation. He is also under scrutiny for his real estate dealings, as well as his meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and the head of a sanctioned, Russian state-controlled bank in December.

This latest development comes on the heels of a New York Times report that Donald Trump Jr. received emails about the Russian government’s efforts to aid the Trump campaign. The emails led to a meeting attended by Trump Jr., Kushner, Paul Manafort and a lawyer for the Russian government, who promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton. The Times investigation was corroborated by screenshots of the emails voluntarily published by Trump Jr. on his Twitter account Thursday.

According to Time, congressional investigators are also exploring whether Russian spies who penetrated voter registration systems in several states shared any of the collected data with the Trump campaign last year. Several of the targeted states, such as Wisconsin and Michigan, helped him win the election.

Kushner has publicly volunteered to disclose to Congress information about his Russia contacts and answer any questions pertaining to their investigation.

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

DeVos Meeting With Men’s Rights Groups To Talk About Sexual Assault?

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos plans to host meetings this week about sexual assault on college campuses and Title IX guidance. But in addition to meeting with advocacy groups for survivors of sexual assault, DeVos will also be sitting down with groups that fight to protect students accused of sexual assault. Some of these groups have a history of advocating for so-called men’s rights and dismissing sexual violence survivors.

According to Politico, DeVos’ Education Department reached out to SAVE (Stop Abuse and Violent Environments), Families Advocating for Campus Equality and the National Coalition for Men.

National Coalition for Men

The National Coalition for Men, founded in 1970, dedicates itself to what it calls “male victimhood” and has a long history of men’s rights activism. According to its website, the organization is “dedicated to the removal of harmful gender-based stereotypes” as they affect men. Some NCFM chapters have published photos of women labeling them “false victims” in instances where sexual assault cases were dismissed by a college review board or a police department did not believe a woman’s story.

NCFM president Harry Crouch once said the coalition is dedicated to “unseating the men’s violence industry.” In an interview with the Pacific Standard, Crouch defended NFL player Ray Rice, who was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault in 2014 for beating his fiancee, Janay Palmer, in an elevator.

“I’m not saying he’s a good guy,” Crouch said. “But if she hadn’t aggravated him, she wouldn’t have been hit. They would say that’s blaming the victim. But I don’t buy it.”

Crouch also dismissed the existence of rape culture, telling the Pacific Standard that “No facts in the universe back this up. They propagandize the whole one in five women will be sexually assaulted by graduation—what does that have to do with college? And think about the way you grew up: Did anyone teach you to go out and rape?”

In the past, the NCFM has supported the Republican Party’s version of the Violence Against Women Act, which would have removed protections from LGBTQ people in crisis centers. The coalition was involved in a lawsuit in 2015 requiring women to register for the draft.

Stop Abuse and Violent Environments

SAVE is labeled as a misogynist organization in a list compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Despite its name, SAVE has often worked on behalf of the “falsely accused” rather than sexual violence survivors. An assertion included in one of SAVE’s fact sheets states argues that “female initiation of partner violence is the leading reason for the woman becoming a victim of subsequent injury”; however, studies show that twice as many women than men are injured during domestic violence disputes.

SAVE has also been critical of a federal rule that in sexual assault cases, makes the sharing of a victim’s sexual history inadmissible in court.

Families Advocating for Campus Equality

Families Advocating for Campus Equality is a non-profit founded by mothers of young men who were accused of sexual assault while in college. On its website, FACE says its mission is to advocate for “equal treatment and due process for those affected by sexual misconduct allegations on college campuses.” FACE refers to people accused of sexual assault as “Title IX’s other victims.” The site argues that the accused often suffer the same emotional trauma as rape victims.

Sherry Warner-Seefeld, one of the founders of FACE, told the National Review in 2014 that the Campus Accountability and Safety Act was “dangerous to our country.” The bill was meant to improve the ways colleges and universities handle sexual assault cases, with one of the stipulations being that colleges publish an annual survey online of students’ experiences.

While DeVos has not taken a hard stance on the expanded Title IX guidelines put forth by the Obama administration, she said during her January confirmation hearing that there were “conflicting ideas and opinions around that guidance” and that “it would be premature” to commit to upholding the guidance.

The hiring of Candice Jackson as the Education Department’s new deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary of the Office for Civil Rights—which investigates Title IX lawsuits filed against colleges—gives more hints to how the department could handle the 2011 sexual assault guidance. Jackson has previously called the women accusing President Donald Trump of sexual assault during the 2016 election “fake victims.”

According to Politico, last month Jackson suggested that the department may reset the guidelines via a negotiated rulemaking process rather than rescind it altogether. Jackson also sent out a memo to the regional directors for the Office for Civil Rights saying that the department will no longer require investigators to gather three years’ worth of complaints at colleges and universities to see if systemic discrimination had created a hostile environment for students.

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Donald Trump Jr. Hires Crime Mob Lawyer For Russia Investigation

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Donald Trump Jr. has hired New York lawyer Alan Futerfas to represent him in ongoing investigations regarding his father Donald Trump and his potential ties to Russia, according to Reuters. Futerfas, a criminal defense lawyer, has had experience in the past representing members of organized crime mobs, particularly the GambinoGenovese, and Colombo families.

The hiring of Futerfas comes on the heels of a New York Times investigation revealing that Trump Jr. had met with a Russian lawyer in the midst of the 2016 presidential election who offered to hand over potentially damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Futerfas has a history of representing members of organized crime rings. In 1993, Futerfas represented a member of the infamous Genovese crime family, Salvatore “Sally Dogs” Lombardi from Staten Island. Lombardi and a number of other defendants from the family were facing trial for attempting to illegally expand gambling operations into Atlantic City. A jury ultimately found Lombardi guilty of racketeering, extortion and illegal gambling.

Again in 1998, Futerfas was the defense attorney for Anthony Russo, who was convicted of murder and racketeering charges along with two other mobsters for involvement in the crime family’s street war. The constant violence in 1991 and 1992 caused by the crime family led to 11 deaths. In 1998, the three mobsters were denied a new trial after being found guilty in 1993.

Futerfas also represented Anthony’s son, Alfonse Russo, in a case where he and two other white teenagers beat a black man in Brooklyn in 1997 in a racially motivated attack. According to the New York Times, Alfonse had beat the victim with the bar of a steering wheel. Alfonse and the two teenagers were later convicted of second-degreee assault and second-degree aggravated harassment, but escaped the more serious charge of attempted murder.

In 2012, Futerfas was the defense attorney 35-year-old Michael “Roc” Roccaforte, a mobster who was part of the group of 27 arrested by police in the Southern District of Manhattan. Roccaforte had pleaded guilty to breaking a multitude of laws in the past decade, including racketeering, selling drugs, gambling and loan sharking. He received a 118-month sentence for his crimes, a sentence four months harsher than what federal prosecutors aimed for. Futerfas unsuccessfully tried arguing for the minimum-possible 97-month sentence for Roccaforte.

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

EPA Chief Wins Golden Padlock ‘Award’ For Excessive Secrecy

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

As a government official, Scott Pruitt does a stellar job at keeping secrets. So far, he’s evaded open record requestsabout his communications with the fossil fuel industry and has directed the EPA to wipe climate change datafrom its website.

Pruitt has become so adept at keeping the public in the dark that Investigative Reporters and Editors, a grassroots group dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting, has awarded him the Golden Padlock Award, which recognizes “the most secretive publicly funded agency or person in the United States.”

In awarding him with this dubious distinction, IRE writes, “Scott Pruitt was selected for this honor for steadfastly refusing to provide emails in the public interest and removing information from public websites about key environmental programs.”

Pruitt’s penchant for secrecy in public office stretches back to his tenure as attorney general of Oklahoma. It was normal for him to ignore public records requests while using a private email account to conduct government business. A New York Times report revealed that what Pruitt was hiding in his government account was a “secretive alliance” with oil company Devon Energy, one of the largest oil and gas companies in Oklahoma. Lawyers from Devon even wrote letters to the EPA in Pruitt’s name and the company subsequently donated thousands to Pruitt’s campaign.

Pruitt’s dodging of public records requests in recent years prompted the Center for Media and Democracy to file a lawsuit in February alleging that Pruitt violated the Oklahoma Open Records Act “for failing to provide public access to official emails and other documents for more than two years.” The lawsuit also asks the attorney general not to destroy any documents that are relevant to CMD’s open records requests. As a result of the lawsuit, the attorney general released 7,564 emails and other records. The lawsuit is still pending in court.

Now as the head of the EPA, Pruitt’s bypassing of traditional government transparency has continued. He has begun scrubbing climate change data from the EPA’s website—not surprising given Pruitt’s skepticism about human-caused climate change. He has also stopped the tradition of releasing his calendar to the public, and Freedom of Information Act requests by several journalists to acquire copies of his schedule have gone unanswered. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in May requesting Pruitt’s schedule and his emails.

The only glimpse into Pruitt’s whereabouts and schedules is provided by his Twitter account, which so far has shown him meeting with executives from energy and other industry groups, as well as congressional Republicans. Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of Open the Government, an organization dedicated to government accountability, told the New Republic that tweeting is no substitute for official documents.

“It’s self-selective,” she told TNR. “He doesn’t have to tweet all of his meetings, whereas his official public schedule is comprehensive, and able to be accessed by FOIA.”

The Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement that its lawsuit against Pruitt was driven by his close ties to the oil and gas industry.

“Americans need to know if Pruitt is still playing patty-cake with the big polluters the EPA’s supposed to protect us from,” said Meg Townsend, CBD’s open government attorney. “The agency’s refusal to release these public documents suggests Pruitt is back to cozying up to oil companies and pesticide makers, at the expense of the air we breathe and the water we drink.”

Pruitt regularly avoids interviews with journalists, save for the reporters from Trump-friendly networks. Reporting from E&E News noted that a majority of Pruitt’s interviews have been with Fox News and its affiliates, as well as the Heritage Foundation and a conservative blogger from North Dakota.

Raising even more suspicions about Pruitt’s lack of transparency are reports that Pruitt has requested a 10-person, around-the-clock security detail. This unusual request, a first of its kind for an EPA director, suggests a bit of paranoia may be fueling Pruitt’s penchant for secrecy in office.

Medium article by Roger Kotila, vice president of the Democratic World Federalists, suggests that “secrecy breeds paranoia.”

“Openness builds trust,” Kotila wrote.

Pruitt is not the only White House official who prefers secrecy to transparency. Pruitt’s concealing of what should be publicly available information follows a trend in the Trump White House of keeping journalists and the public in the dark.

In April, the administration announced it would no longer voluntarily release White House visitor logs, a practice that began under President Barack Obama. Off-camera press briefings are becoming more common, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer has forbidden video and audio recording during briefings several times.

For about a week, Senate Republicans worked on a top-secret health care bill without sharing any details with the press, the public and even members of their own party. And on top of it all, Trump still has not released his tax returns, despite earlier promises to do so.

Under the Trump administration, the federal government is turning into a secret society. But no one is more secretive than Scott Pruitt.

Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.