The Boston Phoenix's Second Annual Muzzle Awards
Ten booby prizes for free-speech abuse
By Dan Kennedy
JULY 5, 1999: Censorship is as American as apple pie and violence. Every day, someone tramples on someone else's First Amendment rights to freedom of expression, of religion, and of assembly. That's why the Phoenix, in establishing its annual Muzzle Awards last year, chose Independence Day to dishonor 10 local enemies of free speech.
Yes, it's true that the Constitution, of which the First Amendment is a part, took effect on March 4, 1789. But who ever set off fireworks on the Fourth of March? The birth of the American idea took place on July 4, 1776, with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. The Muzzle Awards are for those who want to be seen tapping their feet to the music of freedom, but who don't really care much for the lyrics.
This year's "winners" -- as with most would-be censors -- acted, for the most part, with the best of intentions. Surely Boston mayor Tom Menino thought he was doing the right thing when he refused to grant a permit to the folks at MassCann, organizers of the annual Hemp Day pot rally, unless they agreed not to goad attendees into illegally lighting up. Moved by the plight of employees and clients trying to fight their way past anti-abortion crazies, Senator Susan Fargo and Representative Paul Demakis proposed, in good conscience, a 25-foot buffer zone. Even the Unity (New Hampshire) School Board was serving aggrieved constituents when it voted to remove Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from its seventh-grade curriculum.
But Menino, Fargo, Demakis, and the Unity School Board all violated the spirit of the First Amendment. MassCann has a right to advocate civil disobedience -- even if those attending the rally don't have a right to engage in such disobedience. (Remember, Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. went to jail.) Anti-choice extremists have a right, as the First Amendment puts it, "peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Seventh-graders don't have a right to be taught I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But by giving in to a vocal minority, the school board taught students a terrible lesson: that controversial speech can be suppressed at the drop of a petition.
The "winners" were chosen by scanning news databases and by consulting with enemies of censorship, including Harvey Silverglate, a noted civil-liberties lawyer and Phoenix contributor; Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts; and Nina Crowley, head of the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition. The criteria: the person or persons being singled out must have committed their misdeeds in New England, and said misdeeds must have taken place (or, in the case of Governor Paul Cellucci, come to fruition) since July 4 of last year.
Pass the envelopes, please.
FORCING OUT A DEAN FOR LAWFUL, PRIVATE ACTIVITIESBig Brother is alive and snooping at Harvard University.
Last fall, Ronald Thiemann, the respected dean of Harvard Divinity School, announced his sudden, unexpected resignation, telling faculty members he was suffering from depression. This past May another, considerably more titillating, reason for his departure emerged. The Boston Globe reported that Harvard computer technicians had discovered thousands of pornographic images on Thiemann's university-owned computer. Word got back to Harvard president Neil Rudenstine, who asked for -- and received -- Thiemann's head on a platter.
Now, it's true that no one has the right to view pornography in the workplace. That's why few have come to the defense of Erik Butler, who resigned as president of the Pine Street Inn last week after he was discovered looking at dirty pictures in his office. And it's unquestionably true that Thiemann -- an ordained Lutheran minister who headed one of the country's most prestigious divinity schools -- had put Harvard in a more embarrassing position than if he had been the dean of, say, the business school.
But Thiemann was the victim of a gross violation of privacy stemming from Harvard's unusually paternalistic relationship with some of its faculty members. You see, his Harvard-owned computer was actually his home computer, which he used in an office in his home -- which, as it turns out, was also owned by Harvard. According to news reports on his resignation, the cyberporn he liked to view was perfectly legal -- that is, it didn't involve minors, and did not meet the definition of obscenity. It didn't matter. It seems that Rudenstine figured that, since Harvard already owned Thiemann's computer and home, it must have a proprietary claim on his brain as well.
The porn was unearthed when Thiemann asked computer technicians for a bigger hard drive. They came to his house, discovered the files, and couldn't keep their mouths shut -- in itself a shocking breach of Thiemann's privacy. As a former Harvard Divinity School tech-support employee, writing pseudonymously in Salon, put it, "there is a way to look without looking, to help someone with a Word document without actually reading it, to troubleshoot a system for every conceivable problem and not notice the things on a hard drive. . . . Discretion is a virtue." That view is apparently not universal. Law-school professor Alan Dershowitz is absolutely right when he questions why it was Thiemann who was disciplined rather than the loose-lipped technicians who ratted him out.
Following a year-long sabbatical, Thiemann is expected to return to Harvard this fall as a divinity-school professor. As a nationally regarded theologian and founder of the school's Center for the Study of Values in Public Life, he should be welcomed back. Unfortunately, the revelation of why he stepped down as dean will make for an awkward homecoming.
As for Rudenstine, he needs to do some soul-searching about how much privacy he allows faculty members to have. No one should lose his job for viewing constitutionally protected speech on his own computer in his own home. The notion that a person is entitled to less freedom because that computer and that home are part of his compensation package is abhorrent.
GOVERNOR TO PRISONERS: YOU'RE NOT PEOPLEPrisoners, obviously, are behind bars in order to be punished. All but the most violent and dangerous, though, will someday return to society. It should be obvious that education, work experience, and some sort of participation in civic life are crucial to helping inmates make the transition from cellblock to neighborhood block. Governor Paul Cellucci, though, is more interested in scoring cheap political points than in fostering genuine rehabilitation -- even when it involves trampling on prisoners' free-speech rights.
Cellucci is one of two second-time honorees in the Muzzle Awards (if he wins one more, we may have to consider establishing a Hall of Shame). Last year, he was singled out for demagoguery involving an unenforceable bill he signed that outlawed the mere possession of child pornography, which is already illegal under federal law; the new law does nothing to punish those who manufacture and traffic in such vile, exploitative materials. This year, he gets the nod for his politically motivated campaign to remove prisoners from the political process.
The governor began his crusade in August 1997, when he signed an executive order banning a nascent political-action committee being organized by prisoners. At the same time, he announced that he would push for a constitutional amendment to prohibit inmates from voting. But it wasn't until last year that Cellucci's ugly rhetoric began to be translated into action.
First, in July 1998, the legislature overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would take away the right of prisoners to cast absentee ballots. If the legislature passes the amendment again during the current session, and if the state's voters approve it as a ballot question, only three remaining states -- Maine, Vermont, and Utah -- will allow prisoners a voice in the political process.
Then, in October, Suffolk Superior Court judge John Cratsley upheld Cellucci's ban of the prisoners' PAC, arguing that the governor was merely "preserving order and authority." To date, though, the only PAC-related breakdown in order was the result not of the inmates' organizing activities, but, rather, of Cellucci's actions. Shortly after he announced his ban, prison guards searched cells for contraband political literature, notwithstanding the fact that, at that particular moment, the PAC was still officially registered with the state's Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
"When you sentence someone to prison, they lose their liberties for a reason," Cellucci once ungrammatically observed in explaining why he found it "repugnant" that inmates had the right to vote. Actually, there are several reasons for sending a person to prison: punishment, the chance for redemption, and preparation for the inmate, upon his or her release, to become a productive member of society.
In a 15-second sound-bite culture, Cellucci's denunciations of prisoners may sound appealing. But prisoners have already been forced to give up most of their constitutional rights -- including, most profoundly, their right to freedom. Taking the First Amendment away from them is excessive and counterproductive. Cruel and unusual punishment, you might say.
The New England God squad
FOUR REPUBLICANS, TEN COMMANDMENTSIn a moment of memorably low political camp last month, the US House of Representatives -- unable to approve a meaningful gun-control bill in response to the massacre in Littleton, Colorado -- turned to the Good Book instead. On a vote of 248 to 180, the Republican-controlled House gave states the right to post the Ten Commandments in public schools and other government buildings. No doubt Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris would never have embarked on their murderous rampage if the principal had been allowed to post THOU SHALT NOT KILL next to the football schedule.
New England has less to feel foolish about than the rest of the country: the region's House members voted against the measure, 19 to 4. Among the nays were the 10 members of Massachusetts's all-Democratic delegation. However, four New Englanders -- all Republicans -- strayed from the path of common sense and constitutionality: New Hampshire's Charles Bass and John "The Younger" Sununu, and Connecticut's Nancy Johnson and Chris Shays. What's particularly distressing is that there wasn't a single Republican vote from New England against the Ten Commandments. New England Republicans have a reputation for moderation and, on occasion, sentient thought. That may have to be reconsidered in light of their allegiance to House majority whip Tom DeLay, who pushed for the measure under the slogan "God, not guns." (DeLay's actual position might be more accurately summarized as "God and guns.")
A crucial part of freedom of religion is freedom from religion. The Supreme Court has recognized that for decades, going back to the 1960s, when it wisely declared that school prayer was unconstitutional. More specifically, the Court ruled 18 years ago that a measure almost identical to DeLay's folly did not pass constitutional muster.
The House vote was a great moment for Charlton Heston, who, as president of the National Rifle Association, fought against gun restrictions -- and who, as Moses on the big screen, received the Ten Commandments directly from the Big Guy. It was not, however, a great moment for the House, or for the Constitution.
Perhaps Bass, Sununu, Johnson, and Shays believed they needed to curry favor with the vindictive DeLay, and contented themselves with the knowledge that the Ten Commandments bill will never make it out of a House-Senate conference committee. Or that, even if it does, Bill Clinton will veto it. (Don't count on that; Clinton would never let the Constitution stand in the way of his pathological need to pander.) Or that, in the end, the Supreme Court will strike it down.
What's on the record, though, is that they had a chance to strike a blow in the name of freedom of religion. And they walked away.
Unity (NH) School Board
STUDENTS CAN'T LEARN WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGSSince its first publication, in 1970, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been part of the canon of American literature. As one of the few works by an African-American woman in that canon, Angelou's autobiography is an invaluable exception to the "dead white males" to whom schoolchildren are usually introduced.
This past April, though, the Unity (New Hampshire) School Board dropped the book from its seventh-grade curriculum. The reason: 86 people -- out of about 1400 residents -- signed a petition demanding its removal, on the basis of Angelou's graphic description of being raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was eight years old.
"My daughter is still a child. I feel this book will rob her of her childhood," Shiela Purington told the Associated Press. "She is only 13 years old. I think this book is too sexually explicit for her and the other children in her class. My daughter has no idea what is going on, and she is very uncomfortable reading it out loud in a mixed class." Another parent, Mary Gere, actually said, "If this book were a movie, it would be considered child pornography, and the parties responsible would be in prison." And surely they would be if Gere were in charge.
Of course, in the world of local school-board politics, the right of 86 people to keep their children enveloped in a haze of unreality (a haze that in all likelihood exists only in the parents' minds) supersedes the right of the majority to have their children introduced, in school, to important, difficult literature.
Unfortunately, there's nothing exceptional about what happened in Unity. According to the American Library Association, 5246 "challenges" were reported between 1990 and '98, a "challenge" being an attempt to remove a book from a library or a curriculum. Of these, 1299 challenges were to "sexually explicit" material; 1134 to material that used "offensive language"; 1062 to material thought to be unsuited to a particular age group; 744 to material with an "occult theme or promoting the occult or Satanism"; and 474 to material with a gay or lesbian theme, or "promoting homosexuality."
Nor are challenges to Caged Bird unusual. In fact, the library association reports that it was the fourth-most-challenged book of 1998, behind Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974), Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937), and R.L. Stine's Goosebumps and Fear Street series.
It may be scarce comfort to the literate-but-silent majority of Unity, but it could have been worse. The Unity School Board also received a petition to remove I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from the Unity Elementary School library. The board rejected that petition -- not out of any particular regard for the First Amendment but because, as schools superintendent Robert Patterson explained, removing it from the curriculum was one thing, but banning it from the library would invite a court challenge the board would almost surely lose.
Susan Fargo and Paul Demakis
BUFFER ZONES WOULD CHILL PEACEFUL PROTESTViolence by anti-choice extremists is a terrible dilemma, one that almost invites overreaction. But banning reasonable protest -- doing the wrong thing for the right motive, in other words -- is not an acceptable response. Even though physicians who perform abortions, such as David Gunn and Barnett Slepian, have been assassinated. Even though John Salvi was able to walk into two women's health clinics in 1994 and kill two young women, Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols, who were working there.
A federal law passed five years ago that prevents anti-choice protesters from blocking women who are trying to enter abortion clinics strikes a sensible balance between free speech and free access. A state bill sponsored by Senator Susan Fargo (D-Lincoln) and Representative Paul Demakis (D-Back Bay) does not. Their proposal would require protesters to stand at least 25 feet from the entrance of an abortion clinic. As unnerving as it surely is for a woman to have to walk through a gauntlet of Bible-thumping demonstrators waving posters depicting bloody fetuses, it is unquestionably the constitutional right of those demonstrators to be there. Demakis and Fargo would take that right away.
The buffer zone would not have prevented Salvi from bursting into two Brookline clinics. It would not have stopped the murder of Gunn, shot outside a clinic from some distance away, or of Slepian, shot through a window at his home. Indeed, over the past two decades, anti-choice extremists have been responsible for seven murders, some 16 attempted murders, more than 200 bombings and acts of arson, and hundreds of death threats, bomb threats, and acts of vandalism. A buffer zone would not have prevented any of these incidents of domestic terrorism from taking place.
Those facts have not stopped Demakis and Fargo from engaging in disingenuous rhetoric. "Existing law is insufficient to prevent harassment and intimidation, and I believe this approach best balances the rights of patients and employees to go about their business unimpeded with the First Amendment rights of people protesting the abortion issue," Demakis told the Boston Herald. "The level of violence has increased," Fargo told the Boston Globe. "This is not an abortion bill. This is a public-safety bill."
No, it isn't. This is a bill to make those who go to women's health clinics, whether to work or obtain services, feel more comfortable; to keep the chanting, hollering crazies at a polite distance. It's understandable, but it's wrong. Free speech is only as strong as our willingness to defend its most obnoxious outbursts. That's because the definition of obnoxious depends on whose side you're on. Protesters against the Vietnam War, after all, wouldn't have been able to piss on the Pentagon if they'd been kept 25 feet away.
Fargo and Demakis may be acting with the best of intentions, but that's true of almost all would-be censors. The legislature should vote this down.
SUPERINTENDENT TO PARENTS: SO SUE MEOther than Governor Paul Cellucci, our only second-time winner is Suzanne Schrader, schools superintendent in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Portsmouth should be proud of Schrader's achievement. A governor's life, after all, is filled with opportunities to suppress speech if he's so inclined. A school official in a medium-size city, by contrast, must make do with less promising material. Last year, Schrader earned a Muzzle Award for her heavy-handed censorship of the high-school newspaper. This year, she has been singled out for her one-size-fits-all fashion sense.
Schrader, of course, wasn't the only school official whose first instinct following the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, was to do precisely the wrong thing. But her outspoken contempt for students' free-expression rights deserves special mention. The day after the shootings, a confusing time when sensible people were still trying to separate fact from media myth, Schrader announced that kids would be banned from wearing clothing that evoked Marilyn Manson and/or the goth movement. No black trench coats, either. "When kids come back from vacation, they better not even think about wearing Marilyn Manson," Schrader told the Portsmouth Herald. "Parents are welcome to challenge me in court."
Implicit in Schrader's statement is the fact that she knew what she was doing was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, a constitutional right isn't much of a right if ordinary citizens have to pay a lawyer to enforce it. Fortunately, Schrader -- perhaps prodded by her employer, the Portsmouth School Board -- quickly had a change of heart. Before students had even returned from April vacation, Schrader announced that the ban had been lifted, and asked kids not to do anything crazy -- like, you know, wear something black -- until the board had had a chance to review and update its dress-code policy. "If every student at Portsmouth High School voluntarily agrees to refrain from such clothing until the new policy is in place, it will be a powerful act of respect for our slain peers," Schrader shamelessly wrote in a letter to parents.
Last year, Schrader killed an editorial in the Paper Clip, the
high-school newspaper, that charged that a drama teacher who had been suspended
for failing to report a relationship between one of his colleagues and an
18-year-old student was being punished unfairly, because a number of other
faculty members were also aware of the affair and did nothing. The
Portsmouth Herald later published the editorial on its front page.
Faculty adviser Lynda Bettcher barely avoided an official reprimand after she
embarrassed Schrader by calling the student editors "courageous" at graduation
Thus it was fitting that one of the more outspoken reactions to Schrader's almost-ban on Manson/goth/black clothing was an editorial in the Paper Clip by co-editor Gabrielle Johnson, who expressed frustration over the lack of communication between Schrader and students. "I never felt threatened by anyone wearing a T-shirt," Johnson told the Herald. "That stuff is on the outside. What is important is what is on the inside."
Sound advice. Schrader should pay attention.
A HAIR-RAISING ATTACK ON COLORFUL EXPRESSIONLike any good legislator, Tom Kennedy believes strongly in constituent service -- so strongly, in fact, that when one of the folks he represents complained about her daughter's hair color, Kennedy quickly responded. He filed a hair-dye-control bill that would mandate swift and terrible punishment for any business establishment caught aiding and abetting youngsters in their quest for hair colors not known to nature.
The legislation filed by Kennedy, a Democratic state representative from Brockton, would ban the sale of "exotic hair coloring" to kids under 18. Businesses caught breaking the law would face fines of $100 to $300.
"I'm not trying to preclude some teenager from following the practice of some rock band," Kennedy told the MetroWest Daily News. "I just want to protect these young children." He added that the impetus for the bill came from a constituent whose 10-year-old daughter dyed her hair a fluorescent purplish-orange. "The mother saw it and went ballistic," Kennedy said. "It was just an inhuman color." Kennedy reported that the mother could neither wash out the dye nor color over it, and that the daughter had to endure the taunts of her classmates until her hair grew out. You've got to hand it to Kennedy: he really does his research.
At a time when politicians more than ever love to invoke The Family in pious and reverential tones, Kennedy apparently believes that families can't truly thrive without the heavy hand of the government to back them up. When the purplish-orange-haired girl's mother dialed her state rep, sensible responses might have ranged from a respectful "So what?" to, at most, a suggestion that Mom might just ground her daughter rather than make a legislative case out of it. By actually drafting a bill, Kennedy is sending a subliminal message that parents are powerless, and the government must intervene if children are to be raised properly.
Then, too, Kennedy assumes that the government is actually capable of stopping kids from coloring their hair any way they choose. Despite an absolute prohibition on tattooing in Massachusetts, there is not a noticeable lack of permanently inked skin on the teenage population of this state. Nor does any underage kid who wants various body parts pierced seem to encounter much difficulty finding someone to do it. Yet Kennedy believes -- or, at least, wants an upset voter to believe -- that the state can put a stop to a practice that is harmless and requires only inexpensive supplies that can be picked up in one quick trip to the local CVS.
Even the conservative Boston Herald editorial page lambasted Kennedy's bill: "What's next -- requiring hair stylists to get notes from home before they give kids exotic cuts? Or what about regulating the sale of those outrageous nail-polish colors teens are so fond of?"
Kennedy's bill was assigned to the Criminal Justice Committee. If there is any sense whatsoever on Beacon Hill, it will never again see the light of day.
FIRST AMENDMENT, 3; MAYOR, 0Boston mayor Tom Menino has built a reputation as a man who likes things to run his way. When he doesn't get what he wants, his first inclination is to lash out. And if someone's free-speech rights form an obstacle in his path, well, too bad.
Last summer Menino went up against the First Amendment three times. Each time, the First Amendment was the winner.
First, US District Court judge George O'Toole ruled that Menino and his administration erred in 1994 when they refused to give a parade permit to the Nationalist Movement, a white-supremacist group that wanted to march through South Boston. Richard Barrett, the leader of this tiny band of hatemongers, won damages of more than $80,000. What made it worse was that Barrett and about 30 supporters held their 1994 march anyway, without a permit, protected from Southie's outraged citizenry by a phalanx of Boston Police officers.
Then, Suffolk Superior Court judge Carol Ball issued a temporary restraining order against Menino's licensing officials, ruling that they had exceeded their authority when they stripped Seth Greenberg of the entertainment license he needed to operate the Paradise nightclub. The city had cited chronic overcrowding. But Greenberg's lawyers argued that the city, by shutting the club rather than simply cracking down on code problems, had violated the First Amendment rights of the performers. Ball agreed that Greenberg should be allowed to continue operating the Paradise while challenging the city in court.
Finally, and most significantly, Menino tried to wipe out the annual Freedom Rally, a peaceful pro-marijuana demonstration held on Boston Common every October. Judge Ball ruled that Menino had violated the free-speech rights of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition by rejecting its request for a permit.
Despite the city's contention that past rallies had been marked by rampant illegal pot-smoking, vendors without permits, and even a dangerously large propane tank, Ball found that the city's true, and unconstitutional, motivation was to stop MassCann from speaking out. Indeed, the city had written to MassCann that in order to obtain a permit, organizers must "refrain from inciting or encouraging attendees to smoke marijuana." MassCann lawyer John Swomley told the Boston Herald, "I'm truly amazed that they've put this in writing, because it all but assures that an injunction will be issued." He was right. Advocating civil disobedience, Ball noted, is protected by the First Amendment. "Civil disobedience is a bedrock of our society: the Boston Tea Party, the Vietnam War protests," she said, making a point that should have been obvious, but that had apparently eluded Menino.
The ninth annual Hemp Day, held on October 3, drew about 40,000 people, 62 of whom were arrested, mainly for marijuana possession -- thus illuminating two facts: pot remains illegal (ludicrous though that may be), but telling someone to smoke pot is constitutionally protected speech.
YOU DON'T NEED CHILDREN TO MAKE CHILD PORNThe relationship between child pornography and the First Amendment is an uneasy one. The US Supreme Court has held that this most disturbing of all expression is not protected speech. Like obscenity, it may be banned, and even its mere possession may be prosecuted.
This is understandable but wrong, since the real horror of child pornography is that children are exploited in order to produce it. Though anyone who manufactures or distributes child porn should be arrested and charged with child abuse, sending someone to prison for what he looks at is dangerously close to outlawing a person's thoughts. As the Supreme Court put it in a 1969 obscenity case, before its unfortunate, decades-long retreat: "If the First Amendment means anything, it means that the State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch."
Then there is First Circuit Court of Appeals judge Hugh Bownes. In a shocking decision last January, Bownes upheld a bizarre 1996 federal law that prohibits the possession of child pornography even if it turns out that the materials in question aren't really child pornography. Bownes has turned anti-child-pornography law on its head. No exploitation of children has to take place to produce illegal materials. In fact, there don't even have to be any children.
The law in question, the Child Pornography Protection Act of 1996, prohibits a variety of images, including "a photograph of a real child, an innocent picture of a child [that] may be manipulated by computer to create a sexually oriented photo or a fake child [that] can be generated wholly by computer graphics." In other words, a computer artist, without exploiting any children whatsoever, can create a picture whose very possession puts the holder at risk of a prison term. US District Court judge Gene Carter, sensibly, had ruled that the law was unconstitutionally vague. But Bownes reversed Carter, writing, "A jury must decide, based on the totality of circumstances, whether a reasonable unsuspecting viewer would consider the depiction to be of an actual individual less than 18 engaged in sexual activity."
Thus does Judge Bownes offer up the very definition of a thought crime: it doesn't matter whether or not you're looking at child pornography; if you think it's child pornography, then you're breaking the law, and you can be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned.
There is only one reason to celebrate, however tepidly, Bownes's misguided, oppressive majority decision. The person who ran afoul of the Child Pornography Protection Act was one David Hilton of Norway, Maine, a self-described anti-pornography crusader who, according to news accounts, downloaded so much child pornography as part of his so-called investigation that he aroused the suspicions of federal officials.
Sounds like he got what was coming to him -- although we at Muzzle Awards Central nevertheless hope he wins his planned appeal to the Supreme Court, lest his personal dysfunction contribute to the permanent damaging of the First Amendment.
A CRACKDOWN ON GOING TO SCHOOL WHILE BLACKBecause of controversy over so-called racial profiling, the phrase "driving while black" has become part of the national debate over race. In some jurisdictions, police regularly pull over drivers who fit a certain predetermined criminal profile (i.e., young, black, and driving a car more expensive than the cop thinks he can afford) and put them through the law-enforcement meat grinder. Given such practices, it should surprise no one that African-American men speak bitterly of regular police harassment, and that the number of blacks arrested is disproportionate to the number of whites.
Now it turns out that there's a junior-varsity corollary to the crime of driving while black. Call it "going to school while black."
Just a few weeks before the end of the school year, Cambridge schools superintendent Bobbie D'Alessandro approved a raid targeting 28 students in grades five through nine, mostly boys and mostly black. The searches -- ordered by the school system's security forces -- were carried out because of suspicions that the kids were involved in gang activity. Though not a violation of their free-speech rights as strictly defined, the searches were a gross violation of their right to free association -- and their right to be left alone in the absence of evidence that they were either breaking the law or violating school disciplinary rules.
The searches were met with righteous anger on the part of Cambridge's black parents, who packed a meeting at the Cambridge Community Center. "No one has the right in this town to search our kids without a parent's permission," said Lawrence Adkins, according to an account in the Cambridge Chronicle. When Adkins demanded D'Alessandro's resignation, the crowd reportedly erupted in applause. Another parent, Kathy Reddick, was quoted as saying, "We have a system that is out of control and nobody is taking responsibility. Who's authorizing these searches?"
D'Alessandro, though, stood firmly behind her goon squad. Saying she had been receiving reports of gang activities since February, she told the crowd that she feared a Boston gang known as the Hillside Crips had infiltrated Cambridge's elementary schools. "I stand firmly behind our security department," D'Alessandro reportedly said. "I would rather err for the safety of our children."
Err she did, especially if one judges by the weapons being carried by the 28 kids: a meat-tenderizer mallet and a sheathed knife, instruments more suited for wrestling one of the cafeteria's Salisbury steaks into submission than for waging gang warfare.
The worst part was that two of the schools where the raids took place, the Agassiz and the King Open Schools, didn't even notify parents that their kids were going to be searched, something that even D'Alessandro agreed should have happened.
As one Agassiz parent, Lorraine Woodson, was quoted in the Chronicle as saying, "They can call us when our kids are kicking and fighting. I think they should call us when there's a problem. Everyone's screaming about Columbine. Everyone's saying we have to be careful. I don't see any white children getting searched."
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