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Report from Central NY Chapter Director Barrie Gewanter, June 2008

This has been a year of change and challenges in our region and throughout the state. We continue to be an active watchdog for civil liberties throughout the Central New York region.

We have effectively challenged government censorship:

  • In fall 2007, we intervened on behalf of Heathrye Farnham, a student in Spencer-Van Etten High School in Tioga County, who had been suspended for wearing a “gay? fine by me” T-shirt to school. I collaborated with NYCLU Staff Attorney Matt Faiella to issue demands to the school district and start a dialogue with the district’s attorney. As a result, the district arranged for me to address the school board and to deliver a presentation to school faculty on students’ rights. Heathrye was issued an official apology, and a corrective message was read on the schools public address system confirming students’ rights to display controversial messages on their clothing, including messages supportive of people who may be LGBT. The story was covered by regional print and TV media and was also picked up by a few national LGBT outlets and the Student Press Law Center
  • This spring, we achieved a policy change in St. Lawrence County after two county officials censored a poster for “Out at the Movies,” a regional LGBT film festival. We were contacted by film festival organizers, who had learned about our chapter from Syracuse resident William Knodel. I worked with these organizers and other LGBT allies to put pressure on the County Board of Legislators to meet NYCLU demands communicated in a letter I wrote with Matt Faiella. After I made several trips to Canton, the Legislature adopted a new policy requiring consultation with the county attorney and county administrator before any materials are removed from bulletin boards in county buildings. They also are initiating diversity training.

Our intervention elsewhere produced results:

  • We prevented the Syracuse Police Department from imposing a seemingly arbitrary fee for police services and then restricting the route for a regional anti-war march planned by the Syracuse Peace Council. I contacted the city attorney, who asked the police to back down until a new policy and procedure was officially in place. Nonetheless, a police official tried to restrict the intended march route. Renewed contact with the city attorney and a key police official resulted in SPC getting a permit for the route they requested. The march was the largest anti-war demonstration in Syracuse since the Vietnam War. Board Member Sue Griffith and former board president Joe Leonard joined me on Sept. 29 as official NYCLU protest observers.
  • We contacted the Utica city attorney after a resident called us to report a sign placed outside of a city firehouse in December that read “Happy Birthday, Jesus – We Love You.” The city attorney agreed to direct the firefighters to add other holiday decorations that would place the sign in a more secular context in line with current Supreme Court precedent. The resident who contacted us described himself as a religiously observant Christian who opposes government endorsement of religion.
  • Our opposition helped to deflect a proposal that would have altered the definition of “family” in Syracuse zoning law and reduced the permissable number of unrelated adults allowed to live togther in a rental unit from five to three. Instead, the City Council considered measures dealing more directly with parking, code violations, and quality of life issues in the university neighboorhood where the proposal originated.
  • I visited Auburn to raise concerns about a proposal that would have restricted the types of subjects that the public could address during the public comment period of City Council meetings. Board Member Joyce Smith joined me in monitoring the proposal, which was not adopted.
  • I convinced Lee Trade Shows to readmit an Oneida County horse-owner as a vendor at a horse farm and expo held in Fonda in October 2007. Her booth reservation had been rejected because of her outspoken opposition to a federal farm and livestock ID program referred to as NAIS. Lee Trade Shows rejected her booth after the New York State Deparment of Agriculture and Markets asked that their own booth at the expo be moved to a another location to avoid proximity to her message about NAIS.

We played a key role in the filing of an important NYCLU class action lawsuit:

  • In November 2007, the NYCLU filed a class action lawsuit to address the inadequate resources, standards and oversight in the state’s public defense system. Our chapter provided local contacts and research necessary to include Onondaga County as one of the five counties named in the lawsuit. This involved many trips into the Onondaga County Jail and courthouses, meetings with members of the legal and advocacy community, and interviews with incarcerated individuals awaiting trial. My efforts were key in identifying five plaintiffs from Onondaga County and producing supporting affadavits for a motion for preliminary injunction filed earlier this year.
  • I was contacted by a West Point graduate deployed in Iraq who was pursuing a conscientious objector (CO) petition after his developing faith led him to oppose war. After initial communication with me by e-mail, an NYCLU board member took over to assist him with due process issues involved in the processing of his CO petition, which was eventually granted.
  • I was contacted by the mother of a woman incarcerated in a Southern Tier county jail. She was denied the ability to keep an appointment for an abortion she had scheduled before entering jail. I consulted with the NYCLU Reproductive Rights Project, which took over and assisted the woman’s attorney in securing her temporary release for the procedure. This case triggered an NYCLU investigation, which produced a report on the inadequacy of reproductive health care policies for woman in county jails throughout the state.

We lobbied legislators in Syracuse and Albany:

  • Thirty-five people from eight different counties joined me on an ACLU bus to Washington, DC for a national Day of Action on June 26, 2007. We had to travel through the night, but our bus had the largest contingent of any NYCLU group from outside New York City. Central New Yorkers from our bus lobbied their senators and representatives about habeus corpus and the Military Commissions Act as well as the use of torture and issues related to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
  • I went to Albany to lobby Assembly members prior to the introduction of the Reproductive Health and Privacy Protection Act. Given my relationships with four of the five legislators my group was scheduled to visit, the Family Planning Advocates (FPA) staffer who was to lead the visits asked me to take the lead role instead. I followed up on this with a meeting with Senator Valesky in Syracuse.
  • In May 2007 I joined many Central New Yorkers for another LGBT Equality and Justice Day in Albany. This annual event is organized by the Empire State Pride Agenda, but the NYCLU was an official co-sponsor this year. I worked with the New York City office to staff and supply an NYCLU outreach table at the event.
  • I met with members of the Syracuse Common Council to discuss community access television programing in light of renewal of the city’s cable TV franchise agreement. I spoke about the need to preserve and enhance the public forum of public access TV channels, the lack of public information about the current channel, and the degraded condition of the production studio.

We continued to do public education presentations:

  • In September we held a reading of banned books by women authors at the Sugarpearl Espresso Bar and Lounge in Syracuse. This followed my participation in a 16-hour reading of the Declaration of Sentiments from the First Convention on Women’s Rights organized by Sugarpearl in July. Board Member Kathleen Rumpf also joined in repeated readings of the declaration.
  • My presentations on civil rights topics have become a regular feature at the Q Center for Lesbian and Gay Youth in Syracuse. This year I’ve been asked to give presentations on voting rights, students’ rights, teens’ right to confidential health care, banned books and workplace discrimination.
  • I delivered presentations on immigrants’ rights and law enforcment to the staff of the Spanish Action League and members of the Detainment Task Force in Syracuse.
  • Betty DeFazio and I teamed up to deliver two interactive lobbying trainings – one in Utica and one in Syracuse. Betty is the community affairs director at Planned Parenthood of the Rochester-Syracuse Region.
  • I delivered a presentation about the erosion of civil liberties in the War on Terror for members of the Unitarian Universalist Society in Ithaca, a regional Unitarian conference in Syracuse, a statewide Unitarian Conference in Owego and a Regional Leadership Conference for CSEA in Corning.
  • I delivered a presentation about police use of Tasers to members of the Oneida County NAACP.
  • I moderated a discussion of three segments of the ACLU Freedom Files video series at the inaugural “Screening Free Speech” event organized by the Tully Free Speech Center at the SU Newhouse School. I am a now a member of the center’s advisory board. At my suggestion, the event also included a screening of Lisa Seidenberg’s film “Pledge of Allegiance Blues” about the Newdow case.

Our comments about other issues have appeared in regional news. I’ve been interviewed about:

  • Surveillance cameras installed in public parks in Syracuse and in a minority neighborhood in Utica, as well as police car mounted video cameras that read car license plates
  • Use of Tasers by Central New York police departments, and religious observances in public schools
  • The use of DNA in police investigations and the expansion of the DNA databank in New York State
  • The removal of a prize-winning photographs from a display of competition entries at the State Fair
  • Disclosure of student contact information to military recruiters under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Some of us experienced suprises and transitions:

  • Our Legal Committee Chairman Sam Young left the firm of Costello, Cooney and Fearon to become the director of advocacy for Legal Services of Central New York. Sam is thrilled to focus on public interest law, and his position at Legal Services may provide new opportunities for collaboration with the NYCLU on cases that can make a real impact.
  • We had a flood and two asbestos abatements in our office in 2007, and we settled a related small claims matter with our landlord. We also gained and lost board meeting space.
  • We hired a new administrative assistant in our chapter office. Jennifer Cook has a bachelor’s degree in public health education and came highly recommended from Planned Parenthood. She is bright, capable, resourceful and seems well-equipped to keep up with the chaos that sometimes comes our way.
  • I am proud and pleased to announce that I received a community service award from the Syracuse/Onondaga branch of the NAACP last month. Receiving this award was a surprise and a joy.

We will be looking to you, our members, to get involved with our outreach, casework and legislative efforts in the coming year. Your help could be essential in furthering our civil liberties goals. Please let me know if you would be willing to help out. For instance:

  • We are looking for people to help us lobby state legislators for the passage of the Reproductive Health Act (RHA). This bill has not yet been introduced but already the opposition has organized a misinformation campaign. RHA is intended to update state laws pertaining to contraception, pregnancy and abortion, especially in light of the erosion of women’s reproductive rights by the U.S. Supreme Court recent late-term abortion ruling. This bill would codify protections for reproducive privacy and choice, remove regulation of abortion from the penal law, and ensure that New York remains a haven for women’s health and independence.
  • The NYCLU will be looking to you to help push forward reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws by persuading state legislators to change the harsh and rigid penalties imposed under this law. I hope to bring NYCLU Legislative Director Bob Perry here to talk about this at our Annual Meeting and Potluck on Sept. 10 at the home of Karen Decrow.
  • A 2007 court case in Ithaca made it very clear that passage of the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) is necessary, but our legislators still need convincing. DASA would require school districts to take affirmative steps and provide teacher training on how to approach harassment on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation. In 2007, the Ithaca City School District went to court to try to stop the New York State Division of Human Rights from hearing a harassment case brought on behalf of an African-American student. The district backed down, but only after tremendous community pressure.
  • I’m currently working with the NYCLU Advocacy Department and student intern Lance Clements to observe the activities of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents at the Regional Transportation Center in Syracuse. We learned from community activists that CBP agents were boarding interstate buses and trains in Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. The NYCLU decided to investigate when it seemed that these agents were operating beyond their normal jurisdiction and singling out travelers based on race and ethnicity. Observing the CBP agents at the center is our first step, but I’ve already been disturbed to see federal agents ask everyone on a bus or train about their citizenship. We could use a few of you to volunteer to do some of the observations.
  • I also learned recently that the NYCLU wants to act on my suggestions to have an outreach booth at the State Fair. They have recognized that the fair presents an opportunity to educate tens of thousands of New Yorkers about the NYCLU’s work, and they are seeking a grant to fund an NYCLU presence. It is still a major endeavor that will require a lot of planning and a lot of volunteers to staff the booth continuously from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. throughout the Fair. Therefore we’ll be aiming for next year (Summer 2009), and I’ll be calling on you to do a shift with me or with a board member.
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