The New Jersey Supreme Court today handed down a ruling (PDF) affirming that a parent is not guilty of child abuse just for admitting to cursing and using off-color language. The ACLU-NJ argued as a friend of the court in State of New Jersey v. Tate that a foster father’s vague description of having cursed and used off-color language in front of his child as part of a guilty plea -- which he requested to withdraw -- was not strong enough evidence of habitual use of obscenity.
“Today’s decision rejects the dangerous notion that offensive language alone amounts to a crime,” said CJ Griffin of the law firm Pashman Stein, who authored the brief (PDF) and argued on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “We’re pleased that the Court recognized that a defendant’s admission to having used curse words and off-color language in front of a child was too vague on details to make him guilty of abuse on that basis alone.”
The ACLU-NJ also argued that the one-hundred-year-old law should be struck down as unconstitutionally vague, but the Supreme Court decided it did not need to address that issue in this case.
“We’re gratified with the court’s decision to safeguard lawful speech by requiring trial courts to obtain factually sufficient guilty pleas,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “The law in question at the center of this case, however, still raises serious constitutional problems, and we hope those issues can be resolved either through the legislature or through the courts.”
NEWARK – The ACLU-NJ won a temporary injunction today in Middlesex County Superior Court that prevents New Brunswick from enforcing two laws that make it illegal to beg. With pro bono attorneys from the firm McCarter & English, LLP, led by partner Gerard Brew, the ACLU-NJ brought the case on Dec. 19 on behalf of John Fleming, a homeless man who lives in New Brunswick and who had been cited and arrested under the laws, as well as on behalf of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.
Judge Frank Ciuffani expressed concerns about the ordinances’ constitutionality, and the City of New Brunswick asked to schedule the hearing in February to consider ways to amend the ordinances to align them with constitutional principles.
“We’re grateful that Judge Ciuffani understood the constitutional problems in banning begging in New Brunswick, and we’re grateful for the swift action taken today in suspending the laws,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “These ordinances target a particular kind of message. No one should be subjected to a fine for holding a sign or asking for spare change. Thankfully, for now, New Brunswick will have no authority to interfere in that form of speech.”
The two ordinances that have been temporarily halted criminalize begging within the town and require a permit to solicit philanthropic donations, although permits are only granted to organizations, not individuals. John Fleming, a wheelchair-bound homeless resident of New Brunswick who relies on the charity of others to survive, received citations from police four times in less than two months for asking for money via a sign that read “Broke – Please Help – Thank you – God bless you.” At the time of the fourth citation, police arrested Fleming because he missed a court appearance for a previous citation.
“The holiday season puts these anti-begging laws in stark perspective,” said Deb Ellis, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. “We profess the spirit of giving, and yet cities are targeting vulnerable populations. The judge today made the correct and compassionate call, by putting these unfair ordinances on hold.”
The hearing to consider permanent injunction of the ordinances, scheduled for February 12, 2015, at 1:30 p.m., will take place at the Middlesex County Courthouse.
NEWARK -- The ACLU-NJ filed a lawsuit against the City of New Brunswick for two unconstitutional ordinances – one forbids panhandling and the other requires a permit to solicit philanthropic donations – that violate the First Amendment and in effect criminalize poverty. With pro bono attorneys from McCarter & English, LLP, the ACLU-NJ filed the suit on behalf of John Fleming, a New Brunswick man who has been cited several times and arrested for violating the ordinances, and on behalf of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.
The lawsuit seeks an immediate and permanent end to the ordinances and requested the court schedule a prompt hearing.
“The inconvenience a passerby might experience from hearing a plea for money pales in comparison to the violation a homeless person experiences in losing an essential constitutional liberty,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Unfortunately, New Brunswick isn’t alone – not in the U.S., and not in New Jersey. The ACLU-NJ is committed to making sure towns in our state don’t use poverty as grounds to strip people of their rights.”
John Fleming, a wheelchair-bound homeless resident of New Brunswick who relies on panhandling to survive, received citations from police four times in less than two months for asking for money via a sign that read “Broke – Please Help – Thank you – God bless you.” At the time of the fourth citation, police arrested Fleming because he missed a court appearance for a previous citation. He was later held for failing to appear in court on traffic violation from Watchung more than 10 years before.
“Individuals like Mr. Fleming must choose between acquiring enough money to survive and facing citations or arrests,” said Deb Ellis, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. “Making poor people into criminals does not reduce homelessness or poverty. A person experiencing homelessness suffers many indignities – losing freedom of speech shouldn’t be added to that list.”
The ordinances at issue ban constitutionally protected, peaceful expression by outlawing certain forms of speech based solely on the content: asking for money or food. The anti-panhandling ordinance unconstitutionally prohibits people from asking for money in public. Another ordinance bans solicitation of philanthropic gifts without a permit, although only organizations rather than individuals can obtain them. Fleming has been cited under both ordinances. In its filing, the ACLU-NJ asks the court to immediately and permanently strike the two ordinances from the books.
“All I’m doing is holding a sign to ask for help, but this isn’t just about me – it’s about the government not being able to arrest people for what they say,” Fleming said.
New Brunswick is not alone in criminalizing poverty. Towns in New Jersey, and across the country, have passed ordinances banning panhandling and forbidding sharing food with homeless people, as documented in the report “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities” released by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Atlantic City, Newark, and Trenton are reported to have laws on the books banning or restricting begging. Atlantic City requires a permit and has requirements a homeless person might not be able to meet, and it bans begging in certain places in town, while Trenton and Newark ban begging both citywide and in particular sites. Atlantic City and Trenton also ban sleeping in public city-wide.
“Our constitution prohibits laws that punish the peaceful speech of homeless and destitute people,” said cooperating attorney Emily Goldberg, Pro Bono Director of McCarter & English, LLP. “Fifty years ago, this country declared a war on poverty, but now it seems that towns like New Brunswick have declared a war on the impoverished.”
The case, captioned New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness & Fleming v. New Brunswick, was filed in Middlesex County Superior Court.
NEWARK -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the Trenton Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People today called on the Trenton Downtown Association to meet with the organizations to discuss restoring a mural paying homage to Michael Brown, the teen who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo.
The storefront mural was erased last month by the city’s graffiti sandblasting equipment, apparently after the Trenton Police Department complained to the downtown association -- which commissioned the artist who painted the mural -- that the image sent the wrong message.
The mural showed Brown’s face, with stars and stripes on the shoulders of his clothing, and the words, “Sagging pants is not probable cause.”
“We believe the removal was improper both as a matter of policy and law,” the organizations said in a joint letter addressed to the Mayor, the Chief of Police and the executive director of the Downtown Association. “The mural presented an issue of significant public importance and a message that should have been embraced by officials as an opportunity for positive communication between the public and the police. Instead, the Association quite literally ’whitewashed’ the mural, its message and any opportunity it presented.”
In addition to the letter, the organizations filed Open Public Records Act requests for emails between and among the police, downtown association and the mayor’s office.
“While some Trenton police officers might have viewed the mural as sending the wrong message, it was not overtly or inherently anti-police,” ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas said. “Rather than silencing the artist, this could have been a springboard for community discussion about improving police-community relations.”
The mural was painted on the metal pull-down door of a vacant business, and according to news accounts, covered over an illegal liquor ad.
The artist, Will "Kasso" Condry, said he was approached by the downtown authority to paint a mural of his choosing. He chose the subject in consultation with peers at the SAGE Coalition, an artists’ collective that has been commissioned to paint more than a dozen murals around Mercer County.
“At this important moment in history, with so much attention being paid to police practices, it’s important to foster discussions in our community, not to suppress the opinions of one group or another,” NAACP Trenton branch president Jonette Smart said.
The letter also explains that the sandblasting of the mural interfered with the free speech of both the artist who painted it and the community which has a right to view the mural and its message.
This Halloween the staff at the ACLU of New Jersey share what spooks them when it comes to defending our civil liberties. The videos below will serve content from youtube.com. YouTube's privacy statment. ACLU-NJ's privacy statement.
ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg is frightened that voter suppression laws will take away her right to vote.
The New Jersey Supreme Court today issued a decision (PDF) holding that it was improper for the State to submit rap lyrics to a jury in a criminal case where the lyrics were not directly connected to the crime itself. The Court recognized rap lyrics – including violent and profane rap lyrics – as a form of artistic expression, but one that many people find distasteful, which could improperly prejudice a jury who reads them.
“From cave paintings to Johnny Cash to Game of Thrones, the history of art reflects all elements of society, including violent ones,” said Ezra Rosenberg of Dechert LLP, cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “Stripping a creative work of its context is a poor method for prosecuting crimes, and the Court was correct to determine Skinner’s lyrics had little probative value to the charges he faced, but could highly prejudice a jury against him. The inferences drawn from rap lyrics in particular, as opposed to other works, highlight the danger that racial bias may play in the American criminal justice system.”
The ACLU-NJ filed an amicus brief in the appeal of Vonte Skinner, who was convicted of murder based in large part on rap lyrics he had written entirely before the crime in question had taken place. The State never asserted that the lyrics provided direct evidence regarding the crime, nor did the State prove that the lyrics were anything but fictionalized expressions. Rather, the State submitted the lyrics to the jury as evidence of a general motive and intent.
In its brief to the Court, the ACLU-NJ argued that rap lyrics are artistic expressions protected by the First Amendment, and that the use of such writings in the criminal context can chill freedom of speech. The ACLU-NJ therefore sought a rule that would limit the circumstances under which artistic expression could be used as evidence. Today’s ruling did just that.
The Court recognized that violent rap lyrics, although found by some to be distasteful, are artistic works and that authorship itself doesn’t imply that the writer has acted in a manner consistent with the content. The Court importantly noted that we don’t presume Bob Marley shot a sheriff or that Edgar Allan Poe buried someone under his floorboards.
The Court wrote: “Without a strong connection to the attempted murder offense with which defendant was charged, the admission of defendant’s rap lyrics risked unduly prejudicing the jury without much, if any, probative value. … Extreme caution must be exercised when expressive work is involved, particularly when such expression involves social commentary, exaggeration, and fictional accounts.”
The Court continued: “In conclusion, we hold that rap lyrics, or like fictional material, may not be used as evidence of motive and intent except when such material has a direct connection to the specifics of the offense for which it is offered in evidence and the evidence’s probative value is not outweighed by its apparent prejudice.”
“The ACLU-NJ is extremely pleased that the New Jersey Supreme Court placed proper limits on the State’s use of rap lyrics that have little probative value to a case, but that can highly prejudice a jury,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Free expression includes the right to speak about violence or crime, whether tastefully presented or otherwise.”
NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has given Gov. Chris Christie a D+ (PDF) for his overall record on civil liberties and civil rights during his first term in office. The ACLU-NJ examined the governor’s record in 12 issue areas and gave him his lowest grades in the areas of separation of church and state, transparency, and separation of powers.
The governor earned higher marks in other areas, such as freedom of religion and voting rights. The report card examines the Christie administration from January 19, 2010 when Gov. Christie was sworn into office, to January 20, 2014 when his first term ended.
“Gov. Christie’s overall record on civil liberties and civil rights has been poor, ranging mostly from mediocre to failing,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The Christie administration’s first-term record on civil liberties will be remembered for its assaults on judicial independence and the separation of church and state, as well as for its disdain for transparency. Some of Governor Christie’s most frustrating civil liberties moments have been those instances where he has failed to back up bold words with substantive actions, such as in the areas of LGBT rights and the failed war on drugs.”
The first-term report card graded the governor on 12 crucial civil rights and liberties issues: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, privacy, LGBT rights, criminal justice and drug policy, transparency, separation of powers, and economic justice. This report card expanded on the categories of the ACLU-NJ’s 2012 interim report card, which graded him in eight categories.
“The real concern here is not what these grades mean for Gov. Christie and his administration, but what they’ve meant for everyday New Jerseyans,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “From loving couples seeking to get married, to sick patients in need of medical marijuana, to poor New Jerseyans struggling to find an affordable place to live, many of us have not had a friend in the Governor’s office. While there still remains time to improve, as of now, this administration’s legacy on civil rights and liberties is not a proud one.”
Christie’s highest grade came in the area of freedom of religion, the category in which he also earned his highest marks in the ACLU-NJ’s interim report card. Christie deservedly received praise for supporting a developer’s decision to construct a mosque and Muslim community center near the World Trade Center during the height of the controversy in 2011. Soon after, Christie garnered national attention for excoriating a faction that railed against the appointment of a Muslim lawyer to serve as a Superior Court judge.
Christie’s appreciation for freedom of religion swung too far in the other direction when it came down to state involvement in religion. In the category of separation of church and state, Christie received the lowest score – an F. Especially damning was his administration’s decision to give away millions in state funds to two sectarian religious institutions: Beth Medrash Govoha, a school that trains Orthodox rabbis, and Princeton Theological Seminary, which trains Christian clergy.
The ACLU-NJ recognized his administration’s support for voting rights, especially in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, with a B-. In transparency, separation of powers and economic justice, Christie earned solid Fs for his abysmal record on all three issues across the board. The Bridgegate scandal exposed how frequently the administration attempted to keep government business out of the public eye, but it hardly stands in isolation.
Christie’s protracted fight against marriage equality, which ended only when it became clear that he would lose, cast a long shadow over some of his gestures of good will toward the LGBT community, resulting in his final grade of a D in LGBT rights. When it comes to immigrants’ rights, Gov. Christie supported giving undocumented immigrants a chance at a higher education by signing the NJ Dream Act, but he removed an important provision that would have fully opened the doors of opportunity by allowing them to apply for state financial aid, earning him an overall grade of a C in immigrants’ rights. Gov. Christie earned Cs in a plurality of other subjects as well, including freedom of expression, women’s rights, privacy, and criminal justice and drug policy, although even those grades ranged from C- to C+.
“The Christie administration deserves credit where credit is due, especially in taking a stand for religious expression and being responsive to voting concerns in the wake of Superstorm Sandy,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “But where Gov. Christie stumbles, such as when it comes to the separation of powers and to transparency, the bottom falls out. We hope the governor learned his civil liberties lesson from numerous court actions that were successfully brought against his administration during his first term, but if not, we’re ready to compel him to act as if he were an A student.”
On May 1, the ACLU of New Jersey and other leading civil rights organizations hosted a civil rights and liberties debate in Princeton for candidates vying for the 12th Congressional District seat. The seat is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, who is retiring.
Democratic candidates Upendra Chivukula, Linda Greenstein, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Andrew Zwicker and Republican candidate Alieta Eck, squared off on a variety of questions about civil rights and civil liberties issues. The event was moderated by NJTV anchor Mike Schneider.
The ACLU works to protect the fundamental right of every adult citizen in New Jersey to cast a ballot and have that ballot counted. Call the League of Women Voters of New Jersey Election Day hotline: 1-800-792-VOTE (8683) if you encounter any problems at the polls on June 3rd.
Co-sponsoring organization included: AFSC Immigrant Rights Program, CAIR-NJ, Drug Policy Alliance- New Jersey, The Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., New Jersey NAACP State Conference, YWCA Princeton, and YWCA Union County.
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has filed a brief to quash subpoenas issued to two New York University law school students, seeking their email correspondence about an NYU Law School trustee.
The subpoena was issued after the two students were openly critical of trustee Daniel E. Straus, the CEO and founder of a New Jersey based nursing home company called Care One. Straus has opposed efforts to unionize at Care One and has been locked in disputes with employees at other nursing home companies that he runs.
Care One sued two unions, SEIU 1199 and United Healthcare Workers East, alleging among other things, they used NYU Law student organizations to harass Strauss by holding protests and petitioning for Strauss to be removed from the NYU Law School Board of Trustees based on his anti-union positions and business practices.
The subpoena seeks copies of all email and other correspondence between the two students and the dean of NYU law school, student organizations and the two labor unions in the dispute with Care One.
“The NYU students in this case have the right to express themselves and were engaging in lawful and constitutionally protected speech,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “This subpoena would force the students to turn over their private emails, which would have a chilling effect on free speech and freedom of association.”
TRENTON – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) appeared before the New Jersey Supreme Court today to argue that an amateur rapper’s rap lyrics should not have been used as evidence against him in a crime.
Rap music, argued Ezra Rosenberg, the ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney who argued the case before the court, is a genre that originated in reaction to the mass incarceration of young black males in United States.
“Whether gagsta rap is an act of ideological insubordination, or an embrace of the stigma of criminality, or simply a cry against the hopelessness of the human condition in our inner cities, it would seem to b a cruelly ironic contribution to the vicious cycle of mass incarceration for this particular art form to be used as a mechanism to lead to further convictions,” Rosenberg said. “At a minimum, more caution is called for.”
In November 2005, police pulled over Vonte Skinner, a Burlington County rapper, and searched his car in connection with the shooting of Lamont Peterson. When they looked in his backseat, they discovered 13 pages of rap lyrics that used violent language and descriptions of violence.
Although all of the lyrics were written before Peterson was shot, the lyrics were treated and admitted into trial as evidence. Skinner, who maintained his innocence, was convicted in 2008.
Skinner appealed the conviction. The ACLU-NJ filed an amicus brief that argued Skinner’s rap lyrics should be treated as protected first speech rather than as evidence. The brief argues that using rap lyrics as evidence of a confession is akin go indicting Johnny Cash for having “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.