Tag Archive: First Amendment

Viki Knox: Where Garden State Equality Gets It Right

As the author of two diaries, here and here, taking issue with Garden State Equality’s response to the Viki Knox situation, Scott Weingart might like to reply to this. But I wanted to frontpage Steven’s response diary asap. Can there be two more important issues for us to concern ourselves with than discrimination and free speech? – promoted by Rosi

A bit more than 32 years ago, when I was a junior in high school, my classmates and I went out to dinner toward the end of the year with one of our teachers.  At the dinner, the teacher spewed anti-Semitic hate that left us in shock.   My classmates and I, joined by our parents, led a campaign asking the school to take action, and within a couple of weeks, the school let the teacher go.

Our teacher had the First Amendment right to free speech.  So, too, did the school have the right to act.  The school believed the teacher’s hateful comments compromised the ability of students to feel safe and comfortable in the teacher’s presence.  

Fast forward to 2011, when Viki Knox, a teacher at Union High School, posted this on Facebook:  “Homosexuality is a perverted spirit that has existed from the beginning of creation.   I know sin and it breeds like cancer!   I/we do not have to accept anything, anyone, any behavior or any choices!  I do not have to tolerate anything others wish to do.”  

Facebook, of course, did not exist when my teacher had dinner with us students in 1979.  But the situations are parallel, except that Ms. Knox’s invective reached more students, and she stated she teaches it.  As Ms. Knox wrote amidst the anti-LGBT invective she posted on Facebook: “THAT’S WHAT I TEACH AND PREACH.”  The all caps are hers.

In calling for the strongest possible personnel action to be taken against Ms. Knox, the Star-Ledger wrote in an editorial:   “She fired up a computer, identified herself as a Union High School teacher and posted bigoted remarks on Facebook – more than once.   She might as well have hopped on a soapbox across the street from the school and screamed her anti-gay rant into a bullhorn.  She created a fearful, hostile environment for students. That’s unacceptable.”

More after the jump.

Where GSE gets it wrong: Thoughts on Viki Knox, Part II

Last week, I criticized impatient calls for firing homophobic high school teacher Viki Knox as disregarding free speech rights of teachers. Today, I will explain why this approach is a strategical mistake.

Last fall, Rutgers University Freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington bridge after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, secretly filmed Clementi having a intimate encounter with another man. Just like it’s doing with Mrs. Knox now, Garden State Equality demanded that Ravi and his friend, Molly Wei, who also viewed the video, be punsihed to the fullest extent of the law. GSE did not escape criticism for its statements; a group of Rutgers students and faculty condemned what it saw as calls for vengeance. Instead, they argued, the Clementi tragedy highlighted the need for broader conversation addressing unacknowledged prejudices in the Rutgers community and in society at large. Instead of joining calls for Ravi and Wei’s punishment, they demanded policy changes at the university, including the establishment of gender-neutral housing, to create a more positive atmosphere for LGBT students. At the time, GSE dismissed them as “radical fringe group.” But last March, Rutgers announced that it would allow gender-neutral housing.

But to compare Garden State Equality’s response to Knox incident with its response to the Clementi tragedy is unfair. GSE’s statements about Ravi and Wei were infrequent and often responsive to media inquiries. Instead of organizing protests to call for the heads of the guilty, they organized town hall meetings to remember Tyler Clementi and to discuss issues of anti-gay bullying in particular and bullying in general. Instead of focusing on what the perpetrators did in the past, they focused on what should be done to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Thanks in large part to GSE’s efforts, New Jersey now has one of the strongest anti-bulling laws in the country. With Knox, on the other hand, the public message has focused solely on punishing the accused.

Garden State Equality has two options in crafting its public message in response to the Viki Knox facebook posts. One approach, the one GSE has taken so far, is to seek retribution against the teacher for expressing her ignorant views. This approach is short-sighted. The better approach is the one they employed in response to the Tyler Clementi tragedy: to use the incident to highlight the importance of school policies that support and affirm LGBT students across the state. This message is superior because it is relevant to all schools, rather than just this school; because it focuses on LGBT students, rather than homophobic teachers; because it avoids needless First Amendment costs; and because it unites, rather than divides, supporters of gay rights.

One Nation, Under Educated

Observing elected officials ignore the Constitution is not a new phenomenon. In recent years, we’ve seen the prolonging of the unpatriotic Patriot Act and the illegal support of parochial schools with taxpayer money. Fifty-seven years ago, we saw Congress blatantly ignore the First Amendment by inserting the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that is recited mechanically and without much understanding by little school kids every day.

The First Amendment reads, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Yet, since the early days of our democracy, this fundamental tenet has been violated by religious zealots and politicians trying to score cheap points while disenfranchising non-Christians, agnostics, atheists, and others.

“One Nation, Under Educated” was the unofficial theme of the Second Church/State Issues Symposium of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, held this weekend – fittingly at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

The Wall of Separation?

This is something of a diary rescue. It was written Wednesday, but there's a really interesting convo going on in comments … – Rosi

If you are one of the lucky few who have not been booted off Governor Christie's email list, or if you scour NJ.com as I do, you should know by now that the Governor is holding one of his “Town Hall” meetings at St Jude's Catholic Church in Hopatcong, NJ.

As a lapsed Catholic, it had only occurred to me yesterday that today is Ash Wednesday, a Catholic holiday (disclosure: my brother is a priest with the Diocese of Paterson).

How appropriate is it for the Governor to conduct State business on Catholic property, on a Catholic holiday? Will there be a photo-op of him receiving his ashes at St Jude's church before entering the parish hall to shill for vouchers, that will subsidize Catholic schools, like the ones his kids attend?

At worst, this is a blatant First Amendment violation, at best it is plain bad optics. I wonder if he plans future Town Hall meetings at other places of worship like a synagogue or a mosque.

If this troubles you, write to the Governor's office to object. Do not bother with the “Contact us” page on the Governor's website; you will not get a response.Go directly to Constituent Relations:


If you're lucky, he just may answer you.

Or maybe you do not see a problem with this. What do you think?

Answering the First Amendment Deniers

With the gains made by the Republican Tea Party and their evangelical brethren in the recent election, we can expect additional assault on the First Amendment in the months to come.  One of the organizations that strives to protect our First Amendment rights is Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU).

The South Jersey committee, part of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United, is in the process of reorganizing after a two-year hiatus. At a meeting in Voorhees tonight, a small group of members discussed plans for advocacy, awareness, and outreach to like-minded groups.  The major issues tackled by AU and the local chapter are:

  • Church politicking

  • Preventing court stripping (removing jurisdiction from courts)

  • Faith-based initiatives.  

  • Religious symbols on public property.

  • Government-sponsored prayer.

  • Marriage Equality.

  • Intelligent Design and Creationism

In concert with a similar group in Bucks County, the South Jersey Committee conducts meetings with guest speakers, does phone banking, and staffs information tables at public events.  This year’s signature event will be an all-day symposium on church-state issues on April 9, 2011 at the National Constitution Center.  Keynote speaker will tentatively be Reverend Barry Lynn, who is the national director of Americans United

AU does not yet have a significant presence in New Jersey, with a Monmouth County chapter being the only other local outlet.  For more information, go to dvau.org or contact Janice Rael, Vice President at vice@dvau.org

Disclaimer:  I am a member of AU

Bravo, Ray Lesniak

Bravo, Ray Lesniak.

He just beat me to the punch, saying what I was writing for a post here – but saying it better, and saying it as a NJ Senator. Lesniak just made a public statement calling for the re-hiring of a NJ Transit worker who did something Lesniak does not agree with – and I think is offensive and dumb – but nonetheless has nothing to do with how he does his job for the public. In this morning’s News Roundup, I asked the question whether the firing of a New Jersey Transit worker because he burned the Quran by the misnamed ‘Ground Zero’ Muslim cultural center site.

Derek Fenton, 39 and from Bloomfield, was apparently inspired by “Reverend” Terry Jones’ threats to do the same thing, but Jones backed down. Fenton didn’t. In a NJ Transit statement, the agency said Fenton’s actions violated “New Jersey Transit’s code of ethics.”


I think it’s groovy that the bus and train people have hammered out their own set of ethics and all, but if they’re being applied when employees are off-duty and doing things unrelated to their work, it’s time to re-think. Given the facts as we know them, Fenton’s First Amendment rights were violated.

And that don’t make the trains run on time.

I’m going to print Lesniak’s full remarks after the jump, because he was first, and they’re worth reading. So, jump.

Strange Bedfellows (and Pillow Talk) in Trenton

Happy 50th Birthday, ACLU-NJ. – promoted by Rosi Efthim

Monday was another weird one in Trenton.

It’s unusual for the ACLU to testify on the same side as groups like New Jersey Right to Life and New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage. But on Monday, I had the exceptional experience of testifying alongside Marie Tasy and John Tomicki (of those respective organizations) on not just one bill, but two.

Disclosure or disaster? When censorship wears the disguise of transparency.

In an attempt to address the lack of transparency required of 501c4 organizations that run issue-advocacy ads during election season (think swift boat ads), A2595 goes too far by requiring 501 c4 and c3 organizations doing advocacy work unrelated to electoral politics to reveal their members’ private information. While the ACLU-NJ understands the importance of disclosure, if passed this bill would put a stranglehold on our free speech and association rights, and create administrative nightmares for already overburdened organizations.

For example, if the League of Women Voters spent more than $2,100 to provide information in a non-partisan effort to educate voters, under A2595 it would have to disclose names and other information about any donor to the organization who gives over $300. This is true even if the League provided information simply listing the candidates in each district or describing the public questions on the ballot.

Likewise, if the American Cancer Society or Muscular Dystrophy Association wanted to give an award at their annual gala to a legislator for his or her work in their area of interest, and the organization spent over $2,100 in printing programs and invitations containing information relating to the legislator’s accomplishments, that organization would have to disclose the names and personal information of any donors giving over $300.

The ACLU-NJ and NJ Right to Life, as well as other non-partisan, issue-oriented organizations across the spectrum, lined up to speak out against this bill. Even the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) objected to including 501c3 and c4 organizations in the bill. Assembly Judiciary Chair and primary sponsor of A2595 Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein decided to take the bill back to the drawing board.

‘Adopting’ Broad Coalitions in the Fight for Birth Parents’ Privacy

After the hearing on the disclosure bill had finished, our motley crew of advocates headed over to the Assembly Human Services Committee for part two of strange bedfellows at the State House. This time, the issue was the privacy rights of birth parents who wish to maintain the confidentiality state law has protected for decades.

For at least 50 years, New Jersey law has required that adoption records be sealed. Currently, anyone seeking adoption records must meet the courts’ “good cause” standard to get access (which generally requires a pressing medical need).  

Impassioned adult adoptees have formed a lobby to gain access to their original birth certificates, which include the names of their birth parents. The adoptees worked with Senator Joe Vitale to develop a hot messy sausage called S799/A1406, which would open the records so that adult adoptees who requested them could receive their original birth certificates and their birth parents’ names (see bullet points on problems with the bill below).

While we are sympathetic to the adult adoptees, the privacy rights of birth mothers who do not wish to have their names revealed must also carry weight.

I have received a number of anonymous letters from women explaining their situations and thanking us for our work on this issue. Several who wrote became pregnant through rape, incest and trauma, and they fear having those parts of their pasts suddenly resurrected by an unexpected knock on the door.

Follow to the jump for more.

Readington Township restricts freedom of speech 315 days of the year

According to Wikipedia, Readington Township in Hunterdon County sits on an area of 47.8 mi.² and has a population of 16,295—just about the fastest growing Township in Hunterdon County. As a matter of fact, from 1980 to today, Readington has increased in population by more than 50%.   Residents  of Readington enjoy a very beautiful community.

Mrs. Evelyn Brown has owned her own home in Readington for more than 60 years. And  probably she has paid tens of thousands of dollars in property taxes to live that home. And she must be very proud of her son, Fred Brown, who was running for sheriff this year in the June Republican primary. As any proud mother would, Mrs. Brown proudly placed a  “Brown for Sheriff” sign on her lawn.

However, one thing the households in Readington do not enjoy is freedom of speech year-round. You see, according to Article XII, subsection 148- paragraph 116, section D12 of the Readington municipal code, political signs are banned from private property 315 days of the year.

Yes, really.

Readington zoning officer John Barczyk told Mrs. Brown to take her “Brown for Sheriff” sign down, as it was in violation of that town ordinance.

Mrs. Brown was none too happy about that,  — –writing to the local newspaper she said, “Being very proud of him, I asked him to put his sign on my front yard on Route 523. Someone reported my sign to the township and I had to take it down.  To the person who reported me and forced me to remove my sign, I hope your family is proud of you; I’m not.”

The ordinance has this to say regarding the time period signs may appear on private property:

“Temporary political signs for a period of 45 days prior to an election, which shall be removed within five days after the election.”

By my calculations, that means that on your private property you may place a political sign showing your support for the candidate of your choice for Readington Township committee for only 50 days a year. So for 315 days of the year — — about 9 1/2 months — — your freedom of speech is restricted. This is wrong legally and morally.

There are many court cases in New Jersey that have declared similar “temporal restrictions” in other towns unconstitutional:

Boehm v. Borough of Franklin Lakes, 2001 (ordinance limiting display of political signs to no more than two weeks prior and two days after an election). Whitton v. City of Gladstone, (1995) (ordinance limiting display of political signs to no more than 30 days before an election and 7 days after an election). McCormack v. Township of Clinton, (1994) (limiting display of political signs to no more than 10 days before an event while allowing yard sale signs within 30 days of an event). Loftus v. Twp. of Lawrence Park, (1991) (completely banning display of all residential signs, including political signs, while allowing “for sale” and “garage sale” signs).

All ordinances that were overturned by the courts.

So, Article XII, subsection 148- paragraph 116, section D12 of the Readington municipal code is unconstitutional, facially and as applied here.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is pretty clear: “Congress shall make no law. . .abridging the freedom of speech….”. What part of that does  Readington not understand?

Well Mrs. Brown, you’re right and Readington is wrong: by telling you to take down your sign, your First Amendment rights were violated by Readington’s zoning officer.

Go ahead and put up your political sign: And be proud of your son, Fred Brown.  

With School board members like this…

The Robbinsville school district wanted to examine creating a program where students could report other students who use offensive terms.   It turned into school board member Joseph Armenti finding himself as one of those who needs to be reported:

The issue arose after a group of students who attended a diversity conference during the summer suggested the school board put out an “I hear you” box at Robbinsville High School.

The box would work as a collection point for allegations of offensive speech: Students who overhear or are the target of ethnic, religious, homophobic or other slurs would write down the remarks, along with the name of the person who made them, and drop the information into the box. A guidance counselor would then reach out to the offending student.

“I thought it was a good program until the part where they said to put a name in a box along with the derogatory word,” Armenti said. “I felt that could be a witch hunt, and someone could just put any person’s name.”

Ok, nothing too bad so far.  We have an idea proposed by students and a school board member has some concerns.   Then we veer off the road: (Emphasis Mine)

“If my son wants to call somebody a faggot he should be allowed to; it’s his First Amendment right,” Armenti said at the meeting.

Excuse me?  Of course Armenti says he was taken out of context and was just repeating the word, but there was no better way to convey his concerns than in this manner with this statement? On that First Amendment argument:

Luanne Peterpaul, a New Jersey attorney with knowledge of school law, agreed that the First Amendment “doesn’t apply in the school systems when all students need to be protected,” and it doesn’t apply to derogatory terms used toward a protected class, such as gay students.

“This is not a First Amendment issue, this is a respect issue. … It makes it even worse when someone in authority is condoning a derogatory and hateful word,” said Peterpaul, who has not been retained by any party in the dispute.

Maybe they should consider putting one of those comment boxes up on the table at school board meetings in the future.  Setting aside the First amendment issue, Armenti will ultimately have to answer to the voters when they will have the final say at the ballot box.  They’ll have to decide if they really approve of having their elected representative spewing hate speech to make his points.  Armenti chose the words and now has to take responsibility for them.  I can’t help but think if he voiced his concerns in a different manner, this wouldn’t be an issue at all.