On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states have no constitutional obligation to honor public records requests from non-residents. Journalists, who frequently rely on freedom of information laws to expose corruption and break open stories, fear that the decision may make it harder for them to access public records.
MuckRock, a website that files public records requests on behalf of activists, journalists, and private citizens for a small fee and posts the resulting records online, has a solution. The website has been helping out-of-staters seeking public records in Virginia and seven other states with similar laws—Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Tennessee—by pairing them with locals willing to co-file the requests. After Monday’s decision, MuckRock began offering free website subscriptions to citizens of those states to help keep that information flowing.
MuckRock cofounder Michael Morisy, who also works for the Boston Globe, says he “fully expect[s] more states to at least look into adding these laws as they look for ways to cut down on costs for complying with public records requests and generally decrease the amount of people accessing this tool.”
f you’re worried about where America is heading, look no further than Tennessee. Its lush mountains and verdant rolling countryside belie a mean-spirited public policy that only makes sense if you believe deeply in the anti-collectivist, anti-altruist philosophy of Ayn Rand. It’s what you get when you combine hatred for government with disgust for poor people.
Tennessee starves what little government it has, ranking dead last in per capita tax revenue. To fund its minimalist public sector, it makes sure that low-income residents pay as much as possible through heavily regressive sales taxes, which rank 10th highest among all states as a percent of total tax revenues. (For more detailed data see here.)
As you would expect, this translates into hard times for its public school systems, which rank 48th in school revenues per student and 45th in teacher salaries. The failure to invest in education also corresponds with poverty: the state has the 40th worst poverty rate (15%) and the 13th highest state percentage of poor children (26%).
Employment opportunities also are extremely poor for the poor. Only 25% have full-time jobs, 45% are employed part-time, and a whopping 30% have no jobs at all.
So what do you do with all those low-income folks who don’t have decent jobs? You put a good number of them in jail. In fact, only Louisiana, Georgia and New Mexico have higher jail incarceration rates.
From the perspective of Tennessee legislators, it’s all about providing the proper incentives to motivate the poor. For starters, you make sure that no one could possible live on welfare payments (TANF: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). Although President Clinton’s welfare reform program curtailed how long a family can receive welfare (60 months) and dramatically increased the work requirements, Tennessee set the maximum family welfare payment at only $185 per month. (That’s how much a top hedge fund manager makes in under one second.) As a result, the Volunteer State ranks 49th in TANF, just above Mississippi ($170).
You can’t make this shit up:
Building managers and legislative staffers have sought to reassure some concerned Tennessee lawmakers that recent renovations at the state Capitol did not install special facilities for Muslims to wash their feet before praying.
“I confirmed with the facility administrator for the State Capitol Complex that the floor-level sink installed in the men’s restroom outside the House Chamber is for housekeeping use,” Legislative Administration Director Connie Ridley wrote in an email. “It is, in layman’s terms, a mop sink.”
Tennessee police might need better instruction in botany and Buckeye football.
A 65-year-old woman recently came under suspicion, she reported, for having a Buckeye leaf decal on her car. The cops mistook it for a marijuana symbol.
What they really need is better instruction in the First Amendment and
“It’s just amazing they would be that dumb,” Bonnie Jonas-Boggioni said.
She lives in Plano, Texas, but she grew up in Columbus and is known as a lifelong Buckeyes fan.
She has served as president of the Ohio State Alumni Club in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
On Feb. 4, Jonas-Boggioni and husband Guido Boggioni, 66, were driving home to Plano after a trip to Columbus to attend the funeral of his mother, Eleanor, 92.
They were in the westbound lanes of I-40, a few miles east of Memphis, when a black police SUV with flashing lights pulled them over, Jonas-Boggioni said.A second black SUV soon pulled up behind the first one.
“Knowing I wasn’t speeding, I couldn’t imagine why,” she said.
Two officers approached, one on each side of the car.
“They were very serious,” she said. “They had the body armor and the guns.”
Because the couple’s two schnauzers were barking furiously, one of the officers had Jonas-Boggioni exit the car so he could hear her better.
“What are you doing with a marijuana sticker on your bumper?” he asked her.
She explained that it is actually a Buckeye leaf decal, just like the ones that Ohio State players are given to put on their helmets to mark good plays.
Neither the Tennessee Highway Patrol nor the Shelby County sheriff’s office in Memphis had information about the traffic stop. A marijuana sticker would not be a sufficient reason to stop a car, said a spokeswoman for the West Tennessee Drug Task Force.
Even if it were, Jonas-Boggioni said, police hunting drugs should know that a Buckeye leaf — which has five leaflets — doesn’t look much like a marijuana leaf, which typically has seven leaflets and a narrower shape.
Before they let her go on her way, the officers advised Jonas-Boggioni to remove the decal from her car.
“I said, ‘You mean in Tennessee?’ and he said, ‘No, permanently.’
Update: I guess I should get that Texas Star hibiscus leaf off my car.
Women in Tennessee soon may have to get an ultrasound before an abortion, under a bill filed in the state legislature.
State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, has filed a measure that would require women to undergo a “transabdominal ultrasound” and wait at least 24 hours before going forward with an abortion.
Tennessee currently does not require women to have an ultrasound before an abortion, in part because the state Constitution has its own privacy clause. That has so far limited lawmakers’ ability to place restrictions on women seeking to end a pregnancy.
For that reason, Tracy’s proposal would almost certainly face a court challenge.
But eight other states do have ultrasound requirements, making them another battlefront between people seeking to discourage abortions and those who say ultrasounds violate women’s privacy and interfere in their relationships with their doctors.
“Four US states are considering new legislation about teaching science in schools, allowing pupils to be taught religious versions of how life on earth developed in what critics say would establish a backdoor way of questioning the theory of evolution,” the Guardian (January 13, 2013) summarizes. The states in question are Colorado (House Bill 13-1089), Missouri (House Bill 179 and House Bill 291), Montana (House Bill 183), and Oklahoma (Senate Bill 758 and House Bill 1674) — to which should be added Arizona (Senate Bill 1213) and Indiana (House Bill 1283), for a grand total of eight bills in six states.
Missouri’s HB 179 and HB 291 target evolution only, with HB 291 requiring, “If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a course of study, biological evolution and biological intelligent design shall be taught. Other scientific theory or theories of origin may be taught.” Arizona’s SB 1213, Colorado’s HB 13-1089, Oklahoma’s HB 1674, and Montana’s HB 183 target, in varying wording, “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” Oklahoma’s SB 758 and Indiana’s HB 1283 mention no specific topics, although evolution is clearly the implicit target.
Except for Missouri’s HB 291, all of the bills share three features, expressed in more or less the same language. First, they are permissive, allowing rather than requiring teachers to help pupils understand the supposed “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of scientific theories. Second, they are protective, forbidding state and local educational authorities from prohibiting teachers to do so. (Oklahoma’s HB 1674 also protects students from being penalized for subscribing “to a particular position on scientific theories.”) Third, they disavow any intention to promote any religious or antireligious view.
Discussing the bills, NCSE’s Joshua Rosenau commented, “Taken at face value, they sound innocuous and lovely: critical thinking, debate and analysis. It seems so innocent, so pure. But they chose to question only areas that religious conservatives are uncomfortable with. There is a religious agenda here.” Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State concurred, telling the Guardian, “This is just another attempt to bring creationism in through the back door. The only academic freedom they really want to encourage is the freedom to be ignorant.”
Although over forty such bills have been introduced over the last decade, only two have been enacted: in Louisiana in 2008 and in Tennessee in 2012. Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University (and a member of NCSE’s board of directors) attributed the popularity of such bills to the outcome of the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, in which teaching “intelligent design” in the public schools was found to be unconstitutional. “Creationists never give up. They never do. The language of these bills may be highly sanitized but it is creationist code,” she said.
“The laws can have a direct impact on a state,” the Guardian reported, citing the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology’s boycott of Louisiana (recently rescinded for the city of New Orleans, after the New Orleans City Council and the Orleans Parish School Board both took firm stands against teaching creationism). Zack Kopplin, the young Lousiana activist, argued that similar bills risk the economy and the reputation of states considering them. “It really hurts students. It can be embarrassing to be from a state which has become a laughing stock in this area,” Kopplin remarked.
Mitt Romney was channeling former Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis when he gushed, at the first presidential debate in Denver, that “states are the laboratory of democracy.”
Perhaps he meant meth labs.
Still under the influence of the 2010 conservative landslide, state lawmakers over the last 12 months alternatively sought to ban abstract concepts, combat invisible threats, and generally strip away rights from the constituents who sent them to their respective chambers. In a year in which Washington was synonymous with inaction, America’s state legislatures offered the best possible argument for gridlock. After all, sometimes getting things done can be a lot worse than the alternative.
No statehouse was immune from crazy. But a few stood out above the rest. Here’s a quick look at the worst of the worst. Rankings are purely scientific:
1) Tennessee: MoJo’s cutting-edge algorithm awards a 500-point bonus to any state legislature that inspires a news story with the phrase “gateway body parts” and “governor signs” in the same paragraph. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam accomplished the feat in May when he signed into law a new abstinence-only sex education program that critics warned would prohibit almost any discussion of sexual activity during sex ed. As Bristol’s WCYB dryly reported, “News 5 looked into the bill and learned its language has been mocked across the country…”
The gateway body parts bill was part of a new push to crack down on various other gateways, including gateway words, such as “gay.” GOP State Sen. Stacey Campfield’s bill sought to prohibit the discussion of homosexuality for grade schoolers. Campfield articulated his views in a January radio interview:
Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community—it was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall. My understanding is that it is virtually—not completely, but virtually—impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex.
Bomb threats to 30 courthouses and other government buildings across Tennessee forced many to be evacuated Tuesday, including the federal building in Memphis, but authorities said no explosives were found.
Tennessee became the fourth state to deal with similar bomb hoaxes. One targeted 28 courthouses in Oregon and similar threats were reported in Nebraska and Washington this month.
Nine threats were reported in West Tennessee counties — including the Memphis federal building — seven in Middle Tennessee and 14 in East Tennessee, said Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security spokeswoman Dalya Qualls.
No arrests have been made in Tennessee and authorities had searched about 14 courthouses by Tuesday afternoon.
Hundreds of thousands of disgruntled conservatives, still smarting from the re-election of President Obama last week, are signing petitions to allow more than 30 states to secede from the United States — and they are being joined by a motley collection of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Klan sympathizers.
As of midday today, eight of the petitions, which are being posted on a government website set up to encourage citizen participation, have crossed the threshold of 25,000 signatures required to prompt a guaranteed official reply from the White House. (The states are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, the state with the most signers.) But the petitions carry no legal weight at all, and almost no one anywhere on the political spectrum expects them to result in anything more than a collective blowing off of right-wing steam.
Still, that hasn’t stopped the denizens of Stormfront, a huge white nationalist Web forum run by a former Alabama Klan leader, from enthusiastically embracing the cause. Starting last Saturday, a large number of comment threads began appearing on the site that encouraged the radical right to join in on the fun.
Of course, the discourse on the forum has that special Stormfront kind of feel — which is to say, the underlying concern of most participants there is how to create a country, or perhaps countries, that is all, or at least mostly, white.
‘We would be better off using all of our strength to secede 80% white states,’ wrote ‘MattwhiteAmerica’ in one of more than a dozen threads discussing secession. ‘A state like Texas, LA, MISS, AL, CA etc are going to need a good old fashion [sic] war to remove the non-whites. … I’m saying this as most non-whites are socialists and takers. We won’t get a good constitution without a solid white majority.’
‘We need to form a WHITE republic,’ MattwhiteAmerica added a little later. ‘One that is for whites by whites!’
Responded ‘Buffalo’: ‘I have a feeling a lot if not most of the coloreds would be more than willing to leave a state that actually seceded. I have a feeling they would be smart enough to know that it would be either leave on your own or your [sic] going to be removed by whatever means needed.’