July 29, 2010 Issue

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Judge Takes Bite Out of SB1070

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Despite a federal court ruling blocking key portions of Arizona’s new immigration law from taking effect, members of the Los Angeles City Council said on Wednesday they had no immediate plans to lift the city’s economic boycott of the state.

A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition members left for Arizona yesterday morning before news of the changes to SB1070 were announced. Several other local organizations will also be in Arizona today to protest. (EGP photo by Fred Zermeno)

“I think it’s premature to get a knee-jerk reaction now,” said Councilman Ed Reyes, one of the authors of the motion that led to the city’s boycott. “I think we still need to keep the pressure so that we are consistent with our concerns and our actions, but I will be testing and asking my colleagues how they feel and see where we take this,” he said.

U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton in Phoenix issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday blocking several sections of SB 1070 from taking effect. Most notably, she blocked the provision that requires law enforcement officials to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws, if they reasonably suspect the person is in the country illegally.

She also blocked the section creating a state crime for failing to carry registration papers; the section making it a crime for illegal immigrants to solicit, apply for or perform work; and the portion authorizing the arrest of people believed to have committed an offense that could result in their deportation.

Republican Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, who authored SB 1070, said attorneys for the state would file an emergency appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in hopes of getting a quick review of the decision.
“It’s a little disappointing, but again, this is not the final answer,” Pearce told KNX Newsradio. “What she has done is she has enjoined these (provisions) temporarily while they get a greater review by the court. So this is not a restraining order, per se, it’s just a delay, and it’s a preliminary injunction.

“But again, it’s pretty disappointing because it is a federal crime to not have your green card on you, your visa on you, if you’re a visitor in the state,” he said. “And we just put that into state law. It is a felony to hire folks that are in this country illegally, but she said that it’s OK for them to solicit work.

“You know, the courts have ruled. I’m very confident that we’ll win on appeal.”

Reyes called the judge’s decision to put the most contentious sections of SB 1070 on hold “a very positive reinforcement of what democracy is about, that we understand it’s important for everyone to be treated with human dignity and civil rights.”

“I’m elated,” said Councilman Jose Huizar. “I think all of America should be elated because our Constitution, our courts, are protecting us from laws that would create discrimination.”

Councilwoman Janice Hahn added, “I think this judge validated what our concerns were in the city of Los Angeles—that this law in Arizona was an unconstitutional way to deal with illegal immigration. I think that her concerns were our concerns—that this law violated people’s civil rights.”

Still, several council members said they had no interest in immediately withdrawing Los Angeles’ economic boycott of Arizona—at least for now.

“I think it’s too soon,” Councilman Paul Koretz said. “I think (the most contentious sections of SB 1070) have just been put on hold in a preliminary way. I think when this law is fully overturned, at that point, it would make sense to eliminate the boycott, but until then, I think we should keep it in force.”

City Council President Eric Garcetti noted that Bolton’s ruling is only a temporary injunction and said, “If there’s a permanent decision that throws out the portions of this law that seem to be inconsistent with federal law, we could be back in business (with Arizona).”

Several council members also expressed hope that the Arizona debacle will light a fire under Congress to work on federal immigration reform.

“All of us agree there needs to be federal action on immigration. All of us agree that we need secure borders,” Garcetti said. “(SB 1070) was about whether something was so overreaching as to deny basic civil liberties and it seems like the judge has the same hesitations we do.”

Huizar said Bolton’s ruling does not “take the federal government off the hook.”

“We need comprehensive immigration reform (because) there are going to be more states that will attempt to find their own ways of dealing with immigration if the federal government does not do its job,” he added.
Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles, also said the Arizona battle should spark action from Congress on immigration.

“This entire Arizona attempt to deal with various immigration issues outside federal law reveals once again the level of frustration across the country that the U.S. Congress will not deal with the pressing issue of needed immigration reform,” Mahony said. “Without needed congressional action, local communities and states will continue to propose stop-gap measures which do not address all aspects of needed immigration reform.”

Despite the judge’s ruling, hundreds of Southland immigrant-rights activists were still traveling to Arizona to protest the measure.

Members of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition gathered this morning to pile into vehicles bound for Arizona, where they plan to participate in protests Thursday, when the law had been scheduled to take effect.
“People that come here deserve rights. They deserve equality. They don’t deserve to be harassed,” protester David Feldman told reporters before heading toward Arizona.

Union members led by the Los Angeles County Federal of Labor, AFL-CIO, had planned to board buses bound for Arizona yesterday.

Who Isn’t Probing Bell Pay?

July 29, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

The state Controller’s Office began a review of Bell’s finances on Tuesday, one day after the mayor and City Council members agreed to slash their hefty salaries that raised the ire of residents and has prompted multiple investigations.

Controller John Chiang and his team of investigators, at the invitation of Pedro Carrillo, the city’s interim chief administrative officer, are reviewing the city’s books from the past seven years.

“If we identify that there are areas that require additional investigation, especially legal aspects, we will refer this to the A.G.’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office,” Chiang told reporters outside Bell City Hall on Tuesday. “If it requires additional audits, we will do so.”

And on Wednesday, Los Angeles County prosecutors said that they launched their own investigation back in March and are looking into allegations of voter fraud and conflicts of interest involving municipal business in Bell, and not just councilmember salaries as they announced earlier this month.

District Attorney Steve Cooley described the probe as “multifaceted,” and suggests Bell officials will face more scrutiny than they were expecting.

Voting fraud claims and allegations of possible conflicts of interest in city business add new issues about how government operated in the small working-class city where top city officials were among the nation’s highest paid.

The Attorney General’s Office has already begun its own investigation into how part-time City Council members wound up earning six-figure salaries, and how former Bell Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo was paid nearly $800,000 a year, police Chief Randy Adams $457,000 and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia $376,288.

The administrators salaries had been raised at the same time employees, including police officer, were being laid off, or seeing their pay and hours reduced.

Following a City Council closed session last week, Rizzo, Adams and Spaccia resigned, but they are still eligible for retirement pensions that will pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Rizzo’s pension alone could cost taxpayers over $800,000 per year, according to pension experts who say the exorbitant amount will have to be subsidized by other municipalities.

The Attorney General’s Office on Monday subpoenaed hundreds of employment, salary and other records from Bell as part of its investigation. The District Attorney’s Office has also been reviewing the city’s actions to determine if any criminal charges are warranted in the high salaries, and if voter fraud had been committed in the city.

A lawsuit filed this week claims police officers in the city committed voter fraud by filling out absentee ballots for residents and telling people who to vote for in 2009. The lawsuit also alleges that officers filled out absentee ballots for people who were dead.

Now, the republican candidate for Secretary of State, Damon Dunn, is adding his voice to those calling for an investigation. Dunn wants his opponent, Secretary of State Debra Bowen to launch her own inquiry into charges of voter fraud.

These latest investigation announcements come on the heels of yet another contentious Bell City Council meeting Monday night. During that meeting, the council agreed to lower their salaries from roughly $96,000 a year to $673 a month. Mayor Oscar Hernandez announced he would not accept any pay for the remainder of his term or seek re-election in March.

Council Members  Luis Artiga, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal will now receive the same pay as the fifth council member, Lorenzo Velez.

Ignoring repeated calls to resign, the mayor did acknowledge that the council’s action on awarding administrative salaries was “indefensible.”

“To the residents of this great city, I apologize…” Hernandez said. “We know we have hard work ahead of us to restore Bell’s trust as we work to maintain the unparalleled city services that our families depend on.”

He conceded that there should be “a full, transparent and deliberate review of the city’s actions. To that end I will dedicate the remainder of my term to spearheading our city’s cooperation with the Los Angeles County district attorney and the California attorney general’s inquiries.”

Despite the council’s action on their salaries, the activist group The Bell Association to Stop the Abuse (BASTA) —formed just 10 days ago after the news of the salaries broke—continued to demand that the mayor and the four high-paid council members resign.

The group now has 1,200 people officially signed-up, according to Cristina Garcia, Bell Gardens resident and spokesperson for BASTA.

Garcia, a former Bell Gardens city council candidate, had skipped Bell Gardens’ Council meeting Monday night to help organize protestors at the Bell meeting.

“BASTA is actually a bunch of different leaderships that have come together under one umbrella,” Garcia told EGP, noting that the group’s primary goal is to create “better government, better governance for everybody, something that is transparent”

The city council’s salary reduction and the investigation by Attorney General Brown are positive results from the residents’ protests, Garcia said.

“It’s not where we want to be but it lets us know that what we’re doing is working, they’re feeling the pressure,” she said.

While the council meeting was still taking place, hundreds of residents who were not allowed into the meeting because of capacity limits, continued protesting, and chanting “Refund! Refund!” and “Recall! Recall!”

Brand New East L.A. Academy Open to Bidders

July 29, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

A school scheduled to open a year ahead of time in East Los Angeles is the latest entry in Los Angeles Unified School District’s second round of Public School Choice (PSC 2.0), LAUSD officials announced late last week.

East L. A. Star High School Academy, located on the site of a former hospital, is scheduled to open in August or September 2011. It is the tenth new school to be included in the Public School Choice initiative, according to District officials. Under PSC, outside groups, including teachers and charters, can apply to manage eligible schools.

The high school will be in the old East LA Star Hospital located at 319 N. Humphreys Avenue, at the intersection of Humphreys and New York Street, in East Los Angeles. EGP photo by Gloria Angelina Castillo

LAUSD announced the second round of PSC about two months ago, and received more than 200 Letters of Intent for the 9 new schools and 8 focus schools identified by the District, by the June 30 deadline. Informational workshops for applicant teams are already underway.

When finished, East L.A. Star will be able to accommodate 702 students in 22 classrooms, and will relieve overcrowding at Garfield and Wilson high schools, according to the District’s press release.

“As the sponsor of the Public School Choice resolution, I am encouraged by the continued effort to make our new and existing schools models of quality education,” said LAUSD Board Member Yolie Flores, who represents the school district where the campus is located. “I am also encouraged by the progress being made to expand the academic choices available to our students. With the addition of East L.A. Star High School Academy, students on the eastside will finally have a greater opportunity to choose among numerous specialized schools and academies to best meet their individual needs and interests.”

Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines, who announced his retirement plans last week, said the district is seeking “innovative instruction, proven strategies and solid results year after year” from PSC school applicants.

The new high school will share the site with the East LA Star Adult Education campus, currently housed in 16 bungalows and called the Eastside Learning Center. It is run by the Garfield Community Adult School office, and is not part of Public School Choice.

The East LA Star Hospital facility is 105,000 square-feet on 4.98 acres, and cost $47,183,297, according to February 2010 LAUSD Facilities Services Division documents.

Facilities Director Tony Arellano told EGP the old hospital building will house both the new high school and the existing adult school currently located in the nearby bungalows.

Retrofitting of the building is complete but construction is still underway. Once done, the high school will be located on the third and fourth floors of the building, while the adult school will move into the first floor and basement, he said. Over the next 18 months, the bungalows will be removed and their location converted back to parking for the site, he added.

Charter-operator Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools wasted no time in submitting a Letters of Intent for the new campus. According to Communications Coordinator Lili Barsha, the Alliance submitted its letter on July 23, one day following LAUSD’s announcement.

EGP also contacted Green Dot Public Schools to inquire whether they were interested in the campus. John Sun, vice president of new school developments for Green Dot, said on Monday they are not planning to apply for ELA Star, but added they did submit Letters of Intent for three middle schools under PSC 2.0.
Robert Alaniz, LAUSD director of communications, declined EGP’s request for a list of Letters of Intent submitted before the deadline for East L.A. Star saying “we will announce all Letters of Intent received for East LA Star Academy on August 5th.”

LAUSD is holding an Applicant Team Orientation meeting today, July 29, at 4 p.m. at the District headquarters located at 333 S. Beaudry Ave in downtown L.A. Letters of Intent are due Aug 4.

The letters of intent are not bids, but an indication of interest, according to Flores’ press officer Ron Palacios.

The final proposals/applications are due December 1. Presentations to stakeholders will follow, leading up to advisory and school, application reviews by two district committees, a recommendation by the superintendent and a final vote by the school board in February 2011.

Public School Choice is an in-house educational reform aimed at turning-around chronically underperforming schools. Under the Public School Choice Resolution applicant teams compete to present the best plan to raise student achievement and graduations rates at existing school and all new campuses opening.

The first group of 30 schools awarded to applicant teams through Public School Choice will begin to open next month.

For more information on PSC process visit: http://publicschoolchoice.lausd.net

New Youth Center Merges Church and City

July 29, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

A former place of worship is now a training ground for perhaps the next great boxing champion, now that city officials have unveiled the latest youth center in Lincoln Heights.

At a press conference on Monday afternoon, city officials took turns hailing the Lincoln Heights Youth Center Complex as an innovative approach to improving the quality of life in the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood by converting an old church into a youth center that will host a variety of athletic and arts programs.

Lincoln Heights Youth Center Complex (EGP photo by Paul Aranda, Jr.)

Saul Romo, assistant general manager of the Department of Cultural Affairs, said the center will also feature a computer lab along with arts and music programs.

Both the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Department of Parks and Recreation will administer programs at the center.

“This is the first time that we share a space,” Romo said. “ We will be able to bring more resources right into the heart of this neighborhood to fill a void in this community.”

City Engineer Gary Lee Moore said it took three years and $7.2 million to restore the historic church first constructed in 1930. The renovation of the original chapel and a newer addition included a complete seismic retrofit, installation of an elevator and improvements to make the center accessible to the handicapped. The end result is a 15,000-square-foot center that offers a unique, albeit cramped, setting for youth and adults.

For Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes (CD-1), the center’s location compensates for its lack of space.

The center, located on the corner of Altura Street and Griffith Avenue, is surrounded by single-family homes and apartment buildings on all sides. Reyes said the city must place services where gang members live to provide alternatives to the youth in those troubled spots.

The center features a youth and women’s kick boxing class, male and female weight rooms and a youth boxing program. With the celebratory mood created by city officials on full display, the new center also highlights the closure of the former Los Angeles Youth Athletic Club that operated similar fitness programs out of the fifth floor of the old Lincoln Heights jail on Lacey Street for over four decades. The city formally closed the doors of LAYAC on April 30 citing safety issues found during a safety inspection conducted by the Los Angeles Fire Department.

As she led a group of women and children through warm-ups for a kickboxing class, Fortaleza Loaisiga sported a black LAYAC t-shirt. Loaisiga said she enjoyed the spacious environment at the old gym but offered some praise for the new center.

“It’s better than the old one,” she said. “It’s more clean.”

In the center’s rear, a group of young boys began warm up drills inside a boxing gym that featured a brand new ring and training equipment. For volunteer trainer Gabriel Navarro, the center offers a chance to bring his beloved sport to a new set of youth.

“I am happy here,” Navarro said through a translator. “But I was happier [at LAYAC].”

Navarro, 73 said he used to train up to 50 kids a week at the LAYAC where he volunteered for 11 years. As he looked around, he said he currently has a group of five to six young fighters. So far, Navarro said he has seen one boy make the transition from LAYAC to the new center.

Tony Martinez is one of the new fighters to take on the training offered by Navarro. Martinez, 16, is a student at Stern MASS, a charter high school on the campus of Cal State Los Angeles. Martinez said he lives two blocks from the center and hopes to use boxing to enhance his physical fitness.

Ed Barraza, a former LAYAC volunteer, said he is happy the center is open but remains concerned that its limited space is not enough to serve the 200 or so youths who utilized the LAYAC.

“It’s a beautiful place,” he said of the center. “But it’s just inadequate.”

Barraza, a teacher at Burbank Middle School, said attempts to sit down with Reyes to discuss options for a future home for LAYAC have not materialized.

“It is the end of an era,” Barraza said. “It’s not so much the place. All those kids…I don’t know what they’re doing anymore.”
At the center’s opening, Reyes acknowledged the limited space but pressed that it is the best situation for the youth.

“I didn’t want to displace anyone,” Reyes said. “We just couldn’t find something bigger.”

Reyes said his hands are tied due to the city’s current financial condition.

“With this center, we have to establish a new reality,” Reyes said. “If we want to provide options for young people, then we need to be creative.

“This is what we have to offer.”

If a kickboxing class conducted in a former church chapel, complete with stained class windows, does not count as creative, then perhaps a full-sized outdoor hockey rink in northeast Los Angeles does. In a city where basketball courts are the norm, what separates this center is the street hockey rink, complete with court markings and lights for night games.

For Benecio Avendano, 26, the hockey rink offers a unique opportunity to teach local youth the sport he learned on the old tennis courts at Lincoln High School.

As a small group of young boys took turns swiping at orange balls and black pucks, some in skates, others in tennis shoes, Avendano said the court offers a new experience.

“I’m surprised the kids are willing to play,” Avendano said. “It’s something new. A lot of kids like it.”

For now, Avendano said he volunteers Monday through Wednesday from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. The center’s hours in July are limited to 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. during the week. Celina Moreno, the LHYC coordinator, said she hopes to expand the center’s hours in August.

Until that time, Avendano said he has enough hockey gear for 30 players. As for a hockey rink in his neighborhood, Avendano offered a familiar response on the city’s response to a resident’s request.

“I’m excited,” Avendano said. “It only took 14 years…we’ve been asking for this since I was 12.”

Wabash Mural is Break-Thru for Self-Empowerment

July 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Boyle Heights residents took-up brooms and rolled-up their sleeves last Saturday to clean the neighborhood and help paint a mural at the Wabash Recreation Center.

EGP photo by Gloria Angelina Castillo Residents of all ages from the Wabash neighborhood came out to build community and promote safety through the hands-on beautification project.

According to Isela Gracian of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, the organization’s Neighbors Building Neighborhoods (NBN) Committee gave their time and their heart to help beautify the recreation center’s exterior walls located near the basketball courts and playground.

A series of dream like scenes, the mural was designed by artist Wenceslao Quiroz. According to the mural description, the scenes include the image of a Native American dream catcher depicted as a constellation of stars, followed by an illustration of people holding hands around a Ceiba tree and the Mayan tree of life. The image that follows the tree of life is of a Mayan mythological goddess Ixchel, who is carrying “an upside-down womb vessel in her hands which represent the nourishing gift of water and creation.” A fisherman casting a net is in the next scene, with “zombie-like” kids playing videos and trapped indoors. Next, the water pressure from Ixchel’s vessel rips through the fisherman’s net, allowing the fish to work towards the goal of progress and unification.

The mural is one of many elements in the Let’s Activate! Project, which resulted from more than 600 signatures collected in a 6-week period last summer to solicit funding.

The $25,000 project includes free weekly exercise classes, which have already begun, the mural, new basketball courts and benches. The project is funded by the Community Beautification Grant from the City of Los Angeles, grants from the Youth Opportunity Movement, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative, the United Latino Fund and ELACC matching funds, according to Gracian.

EDITORIAL: Judge Stays Parts of Arizona Law, But Issue Looms On

July 29, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

We have said it before and we will say it again, do not expect most people to be charitable when times are hard, jobs scarce and costs high.

Thus, we are not surprised that despite a judge’s decision to at least for now block some of the more controversial sections of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB1070, set to take effect today, many other states are contemplating enacting their own version of the law.

While supporters of the Arizona law insist that it is not anti immigrant, but anti “illegal immigrants,” there is no guarantee that those tasked with enforcing the law can easily, or without trampling on individual civil rights, make that distinction as the law is currently written.

In passing the law, Arizona has fanned the flames of discontent on both sides of the undocumented immigration issue. What has become abundantly clear is that no matter their position, Americans wants Congress to stop delaying action on immigration reform in favor of meaningless, and getting us no where rhetoric.

Federal Judge Susan Bolton has stayed some of the requirements of the law that makes it a state crime to be in Arizona without documents proving legal status to be in the country; requires police officers to ascertain the legal status of people they detain; a crime to solicit or perform work if undocumented, and that authorizes the warrantless arrests of people where there is probable cause to believe the person has committed a public offense that would make them eligible to be deported.

Fueled by the bad economy, job insecurity, diminished public services, Latinos, whether native born, legal or illegal immigrants, are now being subjected to a great deal of hate, suspicion and blame for all that is wrong in this country.

While some may excuse a Latino brother-in-law, individual co-workers, neighbors or a child’s friend from blame directed at undocumented immigrants, for many it is still easier to blame someone who is or appears to be foreign, than to blame themselves.

But that attitude will not solve this country’s problems that go way beyond the question of someone’s immigration status. If we continue to blame the wrong people for everything that has gone wrong in this country, we have no doubt that our future will continue to be very cloudy.

President and Judge Thwart Democracy, Side With Illegals Vs. Americans

July 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

There is a sense of extreme anger sweeping America today, in reaction to the news that Obama and US District Judge Susan Bolton thwarted Democracy in America. We are appealing to Americans to remain calm and to channel that anger into sweeping politicians, business leaders, and special interest groups that support Comprehensive Immigration Reform out of power in the elections. ALIPAC stands ready to lead that effort.

President Obama and Judge Bolton just sided with illegal aliens against the American public. The will of the American public has been usurped.

The President is required by the US Constitution to protect all states from invasion, while assuring states a Republic form of governance. With this court case Obama has deprived Americans of both!

It is hard to find the words to express the anger and dismay this decision brings. It is a sad day in America, when part of our own government has turned against the American public on behalf of invaders.

William Gheen, president of American For Legal Immigration PAC: www.alipac.us

Let’s Get Sensible about Immigration

July 29, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

On Mother’s Day, three months before Arizona’s draconian new immigration law was to go into effect, a mother of two addressed a vigil outside of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center. The woman had been intercepted, without papers, on her way to work. Unable to fight back tears, she told the crowd of the months she spent in this privatized detention center, wondering if she would ever see her children again.

Arizona’s new law, which goes into effect at the end of July, will legalize racial profiling by requiring officers to pull over, question, and detain anyone they have a “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented. The law has catalyzed the grassroots immigrant rights movement, driving hundreds of thousands of activists into the streets demanding comprehensive immigration reform.

However, given President Barack Obama’s recent comments, the chances of a national overhaul in immigration policy is unlikely to happen this year. And with the failure of reform at the federal level, states are taking matters into their own hands, drafting and passing cruel anti-immigrant laws that mirror Arizona’s legislation. They’re also embracing a controversial federal program that essentially lets local authorities convert police officers into de facto ICE agents. (ICE is the agency that used to be called the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS.)

The Obama administration should scrap enforcement-only policies that separate families and encourage raids, deportations, border militarization, and racial profiling. To achieve sustainable immigration policies, we’ll need to consider the roots of migration. What’s pushing people to leave Latin America in the first place?

On a recent Witness for Peace Speaker’s tour, Baldemar Mendoza Jimenez, a farmer and agriculture expert from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, described how the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) undermined traditional agriculture. Unable to compete with subsidized grains imported from the States, millions of farmers were forced out of work.

“Many [farmers] could not make ends meet. They abandoned their lands, left to work in factories and emigrated to the United States.”

Jimenez’s story isn’t unique, but this perspective is largely unaccounted for in the immigration debate. In general, undocumented immigrants and their communities get blamed for the situation, rather than the ill-fated economic policies that displaced those immigrants.

Not one of the 4,130 words in Obama’s most recent speech on immigration addressed why people migrate.

He didn’t address unfair trade, mention displaced farmers, or acknowledge that the immigration rate doubled after NAFTA transformed U.S.-Mexican trade.

The situation in Arizona demonstrates that we need to overhaul our immigration policies. If we want to stem or slow the flow of undocumented workers into the United States, however, we’ll also need to revamp our foreign economic policies.

Colette Cosner is a regional organizer with Witness for Peace. www.WitnessforPeace.org

Protecting Sources Means Protecting the Public

July 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

During the course of its investigation into the current Gulf of Mexico oil spill, The Associated Press was given information from the then-office of Mineral Management Services that was not making a lot of sense.

As millions of gallons of crude spewed into the gulf waters and the oversight by MMS officials on BP’s well was being called into question, an anonymous source in that office told reporters far different stories than what they had been initially told. This anonymous source set the record straight by coming forward and speaking out, and suddenly the world knew that this was more than a mechanical failure; it was a full system failure. The people hired to keep these events from occurring were ignoring their responsibilities.

At times, anonymous sources provide crucial information to the press. Stories of oil disasters may be the latest, but without citizens coming forward and sharing vital information, Americans would not know about steroids in sports, excessive military spending, or food and drug hazards. We would never have been told about Watergate.

A bill currently in the U.S. Senate will help assure such stories continue to reach the public. S. 448, The Free Flow of Information Act, will protect the sources on whom journalists rely from having their identities exposed in all but a few circumstances including where national security concerns are raised. Five years in the making, the current version of this bill is supported by more than 50 journalism organizations, the White House, the Justice Department and most of your Congressional delegation.

Most states have laws that can protect a source’s identity from overzealous prosecutors and judges, but there is no such protection yet at the federal level. S. 448 would change that and extend the same protections offered through statute or common law in 49 states to the national government. Without it, stories focusing on the federal government will not be told because reporters are faced with threats of jail time and fines if they do not turn on their sources.

Subpoenas against the press numbered more than 3,000 nationwide in 2006 with 335 issued by federal prosecutors seeking the identities of news sources, according to a survey conducted by a Brigham Young University law professor. More than a few journalists have spent time in jail, and some have been forced out of the profession all together by heavy fines that crippled them financially. These are all heavy-handed tactics to elicit the names of people who can then be identified and retaliated against. Media companies large and small faced with the enormous expenses of fighting such legal battles to protect sources are turning their backs on compelling stories.

As S. 448 awaits permission from key senate leadership to come to the floor for a full vote, all senators, representing the interests of American citizens, need to hear from their constituents. Citizens who value the importance of transparency in governance and think the American press needs to continue to serve as the watchdog on the federal government should tell their senators to support this measure.

The clock is ticking as Congress will recess in August. Tell your senator to have the bill moved to a full Senate vote as soon as possible and support its passage.

Without this bill, stories that affect lives, like the oil spill in the Gulf, will never get the detailed attention they need to bring about change. Without this bill, your government has a better chance of operating in darkness or lying its way out of trouble. Help bring this to an end by voicing support for S. 448.

Only when there is a free flow of information from the government to its people can we truly appreciate the beauty and power of a democracy.

Kevin Z. Smith is the 2009-2010 national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Reach him at ksmith@spj.org. For more on SPJ’s work to improve and protect journalism, see www.spj.org.

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