Voting Rights Organizations Applaud Court’s Mandate Protecting Private School Students’ Voting Rights

April 25, 2011
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NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Project Vote, and the Fair Elections Legal Network today applauded the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division’s decision holding that the New Jersey State Board of Education failed to meet an obligation for all eligible students to receive voting materials and instruction by failing to create regulations governing those rights of private and charter school students.

“This is a significant victory for the rights of young voters, and for the voting process generally,” stated ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “We all benefit when we have an informed and engaged electorate.”

For 25 years the Department of Education failed to fully implement the 1985 Voter Registration Law, which mandates schools distribute voter registration materials and civic instruction to eligible public and non-public high school students, by not adopting rules and regulations as required. The ACLU-NJ, Project Vote and the Fair Elections Legal Network petitioned the State Board of Education in January 2010 to comply with the High School Voter Registration Law (HVRL). When the Board of Education rejected that petition in June 2010, the organizations filed a lawsuit challenging the Board’s lack of regulations covering voter education at private and charter schools. Its regulations only covered public schools, requiring them to check off a large questionnaire every three years attesting that they have complied with the law.

“School-based programs are one of the most effective means of instilling life-long voting habits,” said Niyati Shah, election counsel for Project Vote. “We hope the state board now adopts regulations that will increase voter registration and participation by young adults throughout New Jersey.”

In today's decision (92k PDF), the Appellate Division held that the agency’s “total omission of regulations covering nonpublic schools falls short of what the HVRL requires.” The Board will now be required to adopt regulations covering the rights of non-public school students. The Appellate Division additionally expressed that the agency is free to reconsider creating a comprehensive set of regulations covering both public and non-public school compliance.

“This 1985 law was enacted to fight low voting rates that tend to occur among youth,” said Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Legal Network. “Our lawsuit asked the state to honor the law’s promise to all New Jersey students and provide basic information about registering and voting. We applaud today's decision to require the board to protect the rights of non-public school students as well. All high school students should now be taught the most basic civics lesson: that voting is important to a democracy.”

The voting rights organizations initially filed the petition after the Department of the Public Advocate issued a study in 2007 showing that between 40 and 60 percent of public school districts failed to comply with one of the mandates of the high school voting law: voter education and putting a registration form in students' hands. It also cited a 2004 study by a Rutgers-affiliated civic education group showing similar data.

The case is captioned In the Matter of the State Board of Education’s Denial of Petition to Adopt Regulations Implementing the New Jersey High School Voter Registration Law.

Newark Police Sued for Unlawful Arrest of Newspaper Publisher

January 22, 2008
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Roberto Lima and Cooperating Attorney Baher Azmy

NEWARK, N.J. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the Seton Hall Center for Social Justice filed a lawsuit today against the Newark Police Department on behalf of newspaper editor Roberto Lima, whom police arrested and held in custody until he relinquished photos his staff took of a dead body found in a Newark alleyway.

"I offered Newark police the original photographs as long as I could keep copies, but they handcuffed me to a bench until I agreed to give them all copies and originals," said Lima, publisher of the Newark-based Brazilian Voice newspaper. "They ordered me not to publish the pictures, but freedom of the press means that it's my choice, not the Newark Police Department's."

On September 6, 2007, a Brazilian Voice photographer discovered a dead body in the Ironbound section of Newark. Lima and his photographer reported the body to the Newark Police and directed officers to the scene. In the course of conversations with the police, Lima offered to turn over copies of pictures his photographer took of the site.

However, Deputy Chief Samuel DeMaio arrived at the scene and ordered another officer to seize Lima's camera. He also ordered Lima to turn over all copies and the originals of his pictures. Deputy Chief DeMaio told Lima, "You're not printing any of this." Lima then voluntarily went to the police station to fill out a report. After finishing the report, Lima asked for his camera back. In response, Lima was told that he would be immediately arrested unless he turned over every copy and original of the pictures. Lima refused and was arrested.

While in custody, Lima, who has deep ties in the community, contacted Councilman Augusto Amador by phone for help. Amador apparently made inquiries on his behalf, including a conversation with Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy, to no avail.

Lima remained handcuffed to a bench until he finally agreed to turn over all copies of the photos. After removing Lima's handcuffs, Detective Lydell James followed Lima back to his office and seized additional pictures. "If freedom of the press means anything, it's that police cannot arrest innocent journalists to suppress stories embarrassing to them," said Professor Baher Azmy who, along with Scott Michelman, both of the Seton Hall Center for Social Justice, represent Lima as cooperating attorneys for the ACLU-NJ. "The American people are entitled to a press that is free to report the whole truth, without intimidation or censorship by the police.

In addition to constitutional claims, the lawsuit invokes a New Jersey law that specifically ensures the right of journalists to be free from improper searches and seizures of their documentary materials by local law enforcement.

"I'm standing up for my constitutional rights, as well as the rights of others," said Lima. "Small papers like mine need to be free from police intimidation in order to do their job and keep their communities informed. If the Newark Police feel they can bully me like they did, I fear what they might do to others."

On January 4, 2008, the ACLU-NJ and Seton Hall sent the City of Newark a letter setting forth their demands and requesting an amicable resolution to the matter. The City did not respond.

The case is captioned Roberto Lima v. Newark Police Department, et al. and was filed in the United States District Court in Newark.

The September 6, 2007, incident that gave rise to the current lawsuit also gave rise to a separate but related complaint against the Newark Police Department. Upon meeting Lima and the photographer at the scene, Deputy Chief DeMaio's first question was about the immigration status of the Brazilian Voice photographer. Less than three weeks earlier, Attorney General Anne Milgram issued a directive that officers should not ask about the immigration status of victims or witnesses to crimes, only of persons arrested for crimes. One reason for this decision was that "public safety suffers if individuals believe they cannot come forward to report crime or cooperate with law enforcement" as the photographer did here. The Attorney General's Office investigated the photographer's complaint and found that Deputy Chief DeMaio's conduct violated the Directive. The Attorney General called for Newark Police Department to "evaluate appropriate disciplinary action as well as the training that will be required for the Newark Police on this issue."

Federal Appeals Court Clears Way For ACLU Lawsuit Over FBI Censorship of Website

July 13, 2004
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NEW YORK— The American Civil Liberties Union today said it will be moving forward in its First Amendment lawsuit over censorship of a controversial website by federal law enforcement officials, now that a federal appeals court has rejected the government’s attempt to dismiss the case.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed in December 1999, charged that officials at the U. S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation intimidated an independent filmmaker and his website operator in an attempt to have a controversial film removed from the Internet.

“The government cannot bully controversial speakers into self-censorship,” said J.C. Salyer, a staff attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey who represents New Jersey artist Mike Zieper and his web host, Mark Wieger of Michigan. “Our clients believe they had the right to show the film without government intimidation, and they are now looking forward to having their day in court.”

Zieper’s film, a fictional six-minute video entitled “Military Takeover of Times Square,” portrayed a secret army plan to incite a race riot in Times Square at the millennial New Year's Eve celebration.  The ACLU lawsuit charged that Zieper and Wieger were subjected to intimidating phone calls from an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor who wanted the film removed from the Internet. The FBI even went to Zieper’s home at night in their attempt to have his film censored. As a result of the government pressure, the film was removed from the website for a period of time prior to New Year’s Eve.

Up to this point, the ACLU lawsuit has primarily dealt with the government’s claims that law enforcement officials did not clearly violate the First Amendment and that they should be granted immunity for their actions, Salyer explained. In a ruling issued yesterday, the federal appeals court affirmed the trial court’s holding that the First Amendment allegations, if proved, would be a constitutional violation.  The ruling also clears the way for the ACLU to have the merits of their clients’ case heard.

“As the Supreme Court has ruled, speech on the Internet is entitled to full First Amendment protection,” Salyer noted. “The government cannot directly order the censorship of a controversial website, nor can it use intimidation to suppress controversial speech on a website, as was done in this case.”

The case is Zieper et al. v. Ashcroft et al., Docket No. 02-618.  The opinion by the Second Circuit  Court of Appeals can be found online at http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov.

The attorneys in the case are Ann Beeson, Chris Hansen and Juan G. Villaseñor of the national ACLU and Salyer and Ed Barocas of the ACLU of New Jersey.

The previous news release about the case, with links to the original legal complaint as well as the Zieper’s website, is at   http://www.aclu.org/FreeSpeech/FreeSpeech.cfm?ID=8803&c=83&Type=s.

NJ High Court Upholds State's 'Family Cap' Welfare Law

July 13, 2004
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TRENTON -- Attorneys and advocates for women and children expressed disappointment with a ruling today by the New Jersey Supreme Court that the state can deny benefits to children born into families already receiving welfare. The groups vowed to hold the state to its promise to insure the "health and safety of families in need."

"We are extremely disappointed with today's decision upholding the Child Exclusion provision of New Jersey's welfare law," said Lenora Lapidus, Director of the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued the case before the court in January.  "However, we are somewhat heartened by the court's finding that the state must stand by its guarantee to alleviate the economic hardships of families on welfare."

While finding the law constitutional, the court's 30-page opinion, authored by Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, concluded that the reproductive rights of New Jersey women were not threatened because of state's assurance that it would "insure the health and safety of families in need."

"While we believe that the evidence showed that the very survival of families is in fact threatened by the child exclusion law, we intend to hold the state to this promise," Lapidus said. "We will be vigilant to assure that the state keeps that promise, and if it does not, we pledge to be back in court fighting for the rights, and indeed, the very lives of our clients."

Today's ruling came in the class action lawsuit Sojourner A. v. New Jersey Department of Human Services, which was filed on behalf of a group of women and their children by the ACLU, the ACLU of New Jersey, the NOW Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the law firm of Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione in an attempt to overturn New Jersey's Child Exclusion policy, also known as the "family cap" law.

Under the federal welfare reform law passed in 1996, states have the option of denying welfare benefits to any child born into a family already receiving welfare. At least 20 states have already exercised this option; New Jersey enacted it as part of its "Work First" welfare program.

In their lawsuit, attorneys for the plaintiffs pointed to evidence that the law has caused many poor women to seek abortions. Despite today's decision, they said, the law remains unwise public policy.  In arguments earlier this year before the court, Lapidus underscored this fact by citing a study conducted by Rutgers University which found that in the first four years after the law was enacted, there were 14,000 fewer births-and 1,400 more abortions-among women receiving welfare in New Jersey than would have occurred in the absence of the Child Exclusion law.

"New Jersey's Family Cap Law punishes the child because the state disapproves of the behavior of the mother, said Sherry Leiwant, Senior Staff Attorney with NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.  "As a result, some needy children are denied basic necessities of life."

The decision in the case is available online at: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/