ACLU News 12-19-96: TV Ratings, Morality, Execution, And More (fwd)

Francisco Lopez (
Fri, 20 Dec 1996 01:30:02 -0500 (EST)

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* ACLU Says TV Ratings Scheme Is Government-Coerced Censorship

* ACLU's Glasser on Morality in the 90's

* Supreme Court Stays VA Execution

* Florida Mulls Anti-Gay Marriage Law

* Cities Ordering Police to Clear Out Homeless

* Radio Host in Los Angeles Draws Boycott

ACLU Says TV Ratings Scheme Is Government-Coerced Censorship

Statement of Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director, ACLU

Thursday, December 19, 1996

The heavy hand of government is all over today's announcement by the
television industry of a new "age-based" TV rating scheme.

As we pointed out back in February, when the President and Speaker Gingrich
summoned broadcast executives to the White House to discuss development of a
so-called voluntary rating system, the fact that the Federal Communications
Commission has veto power over any proposed plan belies any claim that the
system is voluntary.

This has become even clearer as various groups who have objected to the
specifics of the plan are asking the FCC to impose a different scheme on the
television industry.

Where are the parents in all this decision-making? The V-chip, operated
according to a one-size-fits-all government-coerced ratings scheme, actually
shuts out families from the process of deciding what television programming
is suitable for their children. Does America really want Big Brother sitting
on the family couch hogging the remote control?

It is already clear from the ongoing debate how subjective and arbitrary such
a scheme will be when one entity -- be it government, or a government-coerced
industry -- usurps parental control over TV watching. That control will be
further eroded when advertisers drop certain shows and producers abandon
projects for fear of being thought too controversial. Would shows like
"Roots," "Roseanne," or even the award-winning "Touched by an Angel," with
its depictions of sometimes controversial social justice issues, survive such
scrutiny? If a ratings scheme like the one proposed today is implemented,
parents may never get the chance to find out.

Technology should be used to empower, not disenfranchise, parents. When the
V-Chip provision of the Telecommunications Act was before Congress, the ACLU
urged the government to support development of independent private ratings
systems and technology . Such a system would allow parents to block any
specific program, station, or time slot they choose, according to ratings
systems created by private groups such as the PTA, the Christian Coalition,
the Boy Scouts, or even TV Guide. Parents, when empowered with guidance fron
non-governmental, non-industry sources of their choosing, could then make
informed decisions about TV viewing in the home.

Today the government is "asking" for a system from the television industry.
Tomorrow, they may be vetoing the proposal and replacing it with a
content-based ratings system. Further down the line, the FCC will come under
tremendous political pressure to become directly involved in rating
individual programs and punishing those producers who violate government
"guidelines" by giving their programming too "easy" a rating.

Ultimately the best and only guideline for any ratings system is the Bill of
Rights. The ACLU is extremely concerned about the government's intrusive
involvement in Americans' television viewing and we will continue to monitor
efforts to implement a rating plan.
ACLU's Glasser on Morality in the 90's

SEATTLE -- Those who view the 1950's as a moral high-water mark for America
-- and the period since the 1960s as one of moral decline -- have it wrong,
said Ira Glasser, Executive Director of the ACLU, in a recent interview with
the Seattle Times.

Glasser said that the country has gone into a moral decline, but he argues
that it started more recently than the 1960's. In fact, he says, it began
with the rising "extremist intolerance" of those seeking to undo gains in
social justice, equality and basic rights commonly attributed to the 1960's
and 1970's.

Glasser was in Seattle recently to give the keynote speech at the Washington
ACLU's annual Bill of Rights Celebration Dinner. At the event, the state
ACLU honored public defender Tom Hillier, right-to-death-with-dignity
activist Ralph Mero, and Bellingham bookstore owners Ira Stohl and Kristina
Hjelsand, who successfully fought a ban on selling a magazine that some
considered offensive.

"Largely, the view of our adversaries is that the country is in a moral
decline," Glasser told the Seattle Times in an interview before the dinner.
"Their view is all about personal behavior: Living together out of wedlock,
women choosing abortion."

"If you look at morality as personal behavior, you can see why they think the
1950's were so good. People were sexually repressed, gays stayed hidden in
the closet, abortion was illegal, condoms were even illegal in some states,
there was no talk of marijuana."

Glasser said the ACLU sees "a time with a ruthless system of Jim Crow
(segregation), sanctioned by the government. We see lynchings going on while
children prayed in school, terrorism of women, gays living in quiet terror.
We see the 50's as a time of moral depravity and the 60's as a time of moral

On current Washington issues, Glasser said the ACLU opposes requiring high
school students to wear ID badges and uniforms, prohibition of youth-group
homes from suburban residential neighborhoods, and requiring drug tests.

"School uniforms fly in the face of "the values this country was built on, a
country of thinking individuals who can question authority," Glasser said.
"If wearing uniforms deterred crime and promoted good values, he noted,
"they why are they arresting half the military for sexual crimes?"
Supreme Court Stays VA Execution

WASHINGTON -- A death-row inmate whose fate drew protests from Pope John Paul
II and the Italian government won a temporary reprieve December 17 from the
Supreme Court, which stayed his execution so it could review his appeal.

Joseph Roger O'Dell III, 54, was to have been electrocuted Wednesday night
for raping, sodomizing and strangling Helen Schartner outside a Virginia
Beach nightclub in 1985. The court, without explanation, put the execution
on hold pending its review of his formal appeal, which probably will not
occur before January.

The case has been front-page news in Italy, which is staunchly against the
death penalty. The pope and the Italian government sent appeals to President
Clinton and Gov. George Allen to spare O'Dell's life.

It was the third time this year the pope had sought to intercede in U.S.
executions, said George Lingua, secretary of the Vatican Embassy in
Washington. At least two other Vatican requests for mercy have been made
since 1983.

O'Dell's appeal contends that DNA tests three years after his 1986 conviction
showed blood on his shirt did not match the victim's, and that tests of blood
on his jacket were inconclusive.

In a December 16 letter to Virginia Governor George Allen, the American Civil
Liberties Union urged the governor to heed the evidence of reasonable doubt
in O'Dell's case and grant clemency.

"People of good will, whether for or against the death penalty, equally abhor
the possibility that the state could put to death a person in whose case a
reasonable doubt exists as to his guilt," wrote Diann Rust-Tierney, director
of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project.

The letter noted the existence of exculpatory DNA evidence, as well as the
fact that although Mr. O'Dell has been diagnosed with a serious mental
illness, he was allowed to represent himself at his trial. Another important
factor in the prosecution's case was a reported "jailhouse confession" by Mr.
O'Dell, which was later recanted by the person who reported the "confession."

Rust-Tierney noted that Justices Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens and Sandra
Day O'Connor, dissenting in the Supreme Court's refusal in 1991 to hear the
O'Dell appeal, stated that "there are serious questions as to whether O'Dell
committed the crime or was capable of representing himself -- questions
rendered all the more serious by the fact that O'Dell's life depends upon
their answers."

<A HREF="">Odell has a site on the web where he proc
laims his innocence</A>. The address is
Florida Mulls Anti-Gay Marriage Law

TALLAHASSEE, FL -- A Tampa legislator has introduced a bill to forbid Florida
from recognizing gay marriages from other states, the Associated Press

Although no state currently allows gays to marry, Hawaii may become the first
state to do so after a trial court ruled its constitution allows lesbian and
gay couples to wed. The case is being appealed.

The legislation, filed by state Sen. John Grant, aims to prevent the state
from having to extend benefits traditionally reserved for married couples to
gay or lesbian couples.

But officials for the American Civil Liberties Union questioned whether the
U.S. Constitution lets states prohibit people from receiving certain benefits
based on their sexual orientation.

''I think the motives behind legislation like this are mean-spirited and
highly questionable,'' said Andy Kayton, legal director of the ACLU of

President Clinton signed a law denying federal benefits to gay couples, such
as Social Security survivor benefits and pensions. The law also lets states
exempt themselves from extending state benefits to gay and lesbian couples
who marry in Hawaii.

Gays and lesbians are only seeking the same security a legal marriage
provides to a long-term relationship, said Todd Simmons, co-chairman of the
Human Rights Task Force of Florida.

'It always surprises me when Republicans like John Grant get all worked up
over issues like this,'' Simmons said. ''I always thought they were a party
to say we want government out of people's lives.''
Cities Ordering Police to Clear Out Homeless

WASHINGTON -- The nation's 50 largest cities are increasingly ordering police
to clear homeless people out of public areas, the Washington Post reports.

In a story about a report released by the National Law Center on Homelessness
and Poverty, the Post said that about 75 percent of the largest cities have
laws restricting begging, and 38 percent have initiated broader crackdowns on
the homeless in the past few years, including laws against sitting or
sleeping in certain public places.

Maria Foscarinis, the Executive Director of the National Law Center, told the
Post that cities are engaged in ineffective campaigns to reduce the number of
homeless that are designed to fail because without adequate housing and jobs,
homeless people have no alternative but to live on the streets.

Foscarinis also told a news conference that the anti-homeless policies can
cost a city more because housing a homeless person in jail is more expensive
than providing shelter. Also, she noted that many cities have been forced to
defend their ordinances against legal challenges. Courts in Miami and Dallas,
for example, have held that such laws are unconstitutional.

ACLU affiliates around the country have taken the lead in challenging these
punitive ordinances. In Colorado, for example, the ACLU is challenging a
Denver ban on public begging. In court papers, the ACLU of Colorado quoted a
federal appellate court that found very little difference "between those who
solicit for organized charities and those who solicit for themselves in
regard to the message conveyed."

And in New York City, an anti-begging law has also been targeted by the New
York Civil Liberties Union. "It's too vague and it's antithetical to the
values of
tolerance and generosity that make New York City a great place," Norman
Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said.
Radio Host in Los Angeles Draws Boycott

HOLLYWOOD -- Variety reports that things have suddenly gotten a little bit
backward in the professional life of Larry Elder, a controversial host on Los
Angeles talk radio KABC-AM.

For the past 18 months, the black conservative has been targeted by
fellow blacks who have organized a boycott and targeted advertisers in order
to get him fired from the station, the entertainment daily says.

Meanwhile, a group with whom Elder has long disagreed philosophically,
the American Civil Liberties Union, has vowed to back the host in his fight
to keep his job.

"Interesting,'' Elder said in a telephone interview with Variety. "I
guess I'm flattered.''

The irony is that Elder's goal is to be allowed to speak his mind on the
radio, a right threatened by an obscure black organization called the Talking
Drum Community Forum.

Variety says that several sponsors have reportedly pulled out of Elder's
show in the face of an intense letter-writing campaign, costing the station a
small mint in lost revenue. Los Angeles-based Talking Drum also distributes
flyers and runs telephone messages quoting Elder out of context to augment
its campaign.

The Talking Drum's beef with Elder likely stems from his unconventional
views about race and responsibility. He believes, for example, that racism is
not nearly as widespread a problem as the black community would have us
believe and is used primarily as a crutch and a cop-out.

Elder has likewise been jarringly candid about the particulars of the
O.J. Simpson case and trials, blasting those who reduce the issue to race and
challenging the sanity of anyone who denies his guilt for murder. And he has
opposed initiatives backing affirmative action.

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California,
told Variety that Elder's rights to free speech are clearly being violated.

"To organize a boycott is really to curtail speech, and curbing speech is
always wrong,'' Ripston said. "We would surely intercede and do what we could
if called upon to do so ... We support him in this fight. I mean, if people
object to Larry Elder, they should just turn the dial or go discuss it on the
air with him.''
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