Tuesday, April 17, 2012

War on Women: We Just Keep Fighting the Same Battles

According to a recent study by the National Women’s Law Center, Wyoming women earn 64 cents to every dollar earned by men. Nationally, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

The war on women is not a new war; it’s a war as old as our country. My grandmother was born into a time in our country’s history when she could not vote, hold property or go to a university. Her husband was her master (at least according to the law); he made the decisions, controlled the money and would have automatically taken the children if they divorced. Women in my grandmother’s generation fought for their right to vote and were beaten and jailed for their efforts; it took years of fighting before women’s suffrage was granted in 1924.

My mother was born almost 50 years after her mother, and women were still expected to defer to their husbands in all things financial, political or worldly. Women could not have credit in their own names, and generally could not get credit without a husband. Women were expected to stay at home with the children while men went out into the world. The women who did work, worked at low-paying jobs that we still see as traditional “women’s work.” Despite the fact that women proved they could succeed doing the same jobs as men during the war-effort in WWII, women who worked at high paying war industry jobs were thrown out of those jobs after the conclusion of the war. As a widow, my mother worked to support herself and her child. She often trained the young college men that would eventually become her supervisors. She was sexually harassed, verbally abused and paid substantially less than the men she trained.

I was part of a generation of women who tried to change the world for women. Even though we came into an age that was much like my mother’s age, we saw a different future for ourselves. A future where women had both choices and power. A future where women had a voice and that voice would be heard. Women in my generation fought for equal rights, reproductive rights, protection from domestic violence and the right to our own sexuality and independence. Unfortunately, these battles continue to this very day in all areas of society, including the working world.

Today, on April 17th we mark Equal Pay Day, the day women must work from last year into 2012 to make the same amount of money as men made in one year in 2011. Wyoming women have the largest gender wage gap in the nation and make only 64 cents for every dollar a man makes. Women in the rest of the nation make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes; minority women make even less. These statistics are reported by the Casper Star Tribune, the Billings Gazette and the National Women's Law Center.

It has been illegal to pay women less for the same job for over a half century, yet today even in traditionally male dominated high paying fields, women still make less. 40% of American women are the primary breadwinners in their family, and yet we have male politicians pushing legislation to weaken laws that protect women in the work place. Earlier this month, the state of Wisconsin repealed its Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which allowed victims of workplace discrimination to seek damages in the state’s courts.

The gender gap has been in the forefront of the presidential campaign with both sides blaming a “war on women” started by the other party. Women have less political power because they make less money, yet pay more for insurance, health care and services. During our current recession men’s employment rates have improved slightly, but women’s unemployment has gone up.

Women also have less political strength because they still have a disproportionately smaller segment of women in political office. In Wyoming there is only one woman in the Senate. One. In addition, politicians have done a masterful job of dividing women by playing wedge issues to ensure that women do not unite over common beliefs. The massive campaigns exploiting reproductive rights issues have divided women’s political power for 40 years to the great advantage of those that are very aware of the political power that women would have if they ever united.

April 17th will go by with little recognition from most of the population. Women will continue to work for lower wages and men will continue to vote on laws that affect every aspect of women’s lives with little attention to fairness or equality. Women should stop allowing the political manipulation that stills their political power and voice, which keeps them from making progress on those issues that all women should be able to agree on: equal pay for equal work, a healthy economy, jobs, access to education and health care.

Last week, President Obama wrote in an op-ed that, “Closing this pay gap — ending this pay discrimination — is about far more than simple fairness, it's about strengthening families, communities and our entire economy.” I couldn’t agree more.

Linda Burt
Executive Director
ACLU of Wyoming

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why Someone Else’s Free Speech Rights Matter to Me

Yesterday, the Wyoming Supreme Court handed down an opinion finding that the city of Jackson suppressed the free speech rights of Operation Save America (OSA), a conservative pro-life group that protested last year during Elkfest, an annual event in Jackson celebrating nature, hunting, outdoor skills and ecological education and awareness. The Jackson Hole News & Guide reports that the group plans to protest again during this year’s Elkfest. OSA’s “word in warfare” protest will specifically target a clinic in Jackson that is considered to be Wyoming’s only abortion provider. The group plans to read the bible from beginning to end outside of the clinic during the upcoming protest.

Last year’s visit to the Jackson community by the OSA protesters was not well received by many community members. OSA protesters used large signs containing graphic images of aborted fetuses for their shock value, with the stated purpose of attempting to sway public opinion to their side in the abortion debate. Many Jacksonites expressed indignation that OSA had scheduled their demonstrations at the same time as the Boy Scouts of America were holding their annual antler auction at Elkfest. Approximately 200 boys, ages seven to fourteen, attended the Boy Scouts event and were exposed to the protesters’ graphic posters.

The town of Jackson filed for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to bar the group from Town Square, citing public safety concerns and worries about exposing the Boy Scouts to the vivid photographs used by the demonstrators. A Wyoming District Court granted a TRO, but this week the Wyoming Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling because it infringed upon the free speech rights of OSA. The high court held that the TRO imposes content-based restrictions in a traditional public forum, and upheld core First Amendment principles designed to protect even the most unpopular speech on matters of public concern.

Last week, the state of Wyoming settled a free speech case filed in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming by the Wyoming-based conservative Christian anti-choice group, WyWatch. After receiving authorization to set up a booth in the Herschler Gallery of the capitol building, WyWatch’s display was removed based on several complaints about the offensive nature of the images. To be sure, WyWatch’s display was consistent with the building’s guidelines, and included a poster of a fetus with a biblical verse, but was certainly not of the same graphic nature of OSA’s pickets. The state censored the display based on content; censorship that infringed upon WyWatch’s constitutional right to free speech. The ACLU of Wyoming filed an amicus brief in support of WyWatch’s claim that the removal of the display was unreasonable and obstructed the group’s First Amendment rights.

It’s important to note that the ACLU does not agree with the anti-choice message of groups like WyWatch or OSA, but we firmly support their right to share them. This is a critical distinction to make; one that is very important to me personally. When I first saw the striking images used by groups like OSA, I was shocked, then outraged. I was infuriated that groups were choosing to use this type of imagery to advance their message. I thought about conversations that took place around dinner tables in Jackson after the OSA protests last year, where parents were forced to explain why their children were subjected to these offensive images outside their middle school.

Then I remembered a statement I heard long ago; one that’s relevance I had not fully understood until I began working for the ACLU. If we don’t believe in the freedom of expression for those with whom we disagree, we don’t believe in the freedom of expression at all. I challenge all readers to sit back for a moment and ponder the true meaning of this statement.

The principles of the First Amendment grant all Americans, regardless of their views, the right to express themselves. Throughout its history, the ACLU has defended the free speech rights of many types of groups, from WyWatch, to the Westboro Baptist Church, to the KKK. We defend these groups not because we agree with their messages; in fact, we find them to be reprehensible. We represent them because we believe in the principle of free speech, and because once you chip away at one person’s rights, everyone’s rights are at risk.

It is for these reasons that both the Wyoming Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court of Wyoming made the right decision in each of these cases. The First Amendment ensures that the government cannot suppress free speech, no matter how distasteful the speech may be. When the government restricts speech, the government bears the burden of proving the constitutionality of its actions. Clearly, they were unable to do so in either case here.

While the ACLU is unapologetically pro-choice, we believe so strongly in the principle of the freedom of expression that we will continue to defend the rights of all Americans, even for those with whom we disagree.

Ryan Frost
Program Coordinator
ACLU of Wyoming

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Juvenile Justice Denied: One Year After "Inequality"

It’s been one year since we issued our comprehensive report on juvenile justice in Wyoming, Inequality in the Equality State: The Damaged Juvenile Justice and Detention System in Wyoming. In 2010, we issued A Call to Stop Child Prosecutions in Wyoming Adult Courts. These two documents were the last in a series of reporting that started in the 1960’s calling for changes in our bifurcated juvenile system. Most, up to 85%, of our juveniles are seen in adult court with none of the protections generally afforded to juveniles. These children are seen by judges in an adult court with few options other than fines or detention. As a result, Wyoming has historically had one of the highest detention rates in the nation. Even those counties that purport to have programs for youth still continue to have high detention rates.

The judges in these courts are not required to have any specialized training to deal with adolescents and some still clearly believe, despite all information to the contrary, that putting kids in jail is the best remedy for immature behavior. Of course, what we know from years of research is that detention is the worst option for juveniles and often exacerbates bad behavior. Children put in detention are more likely to drop out of school, continue involvement in the criminal justice system and have unsuccessful adult lives. In addition, because these youth are processed through adult courts, they often have an adult criminal record which can cause problems later in their life when applying for jobs or student loans. Yet we continue.

Forty years of reports have criticized the lack of a uniform juvenile justice system and court, which would provide privacy and protections that youth can generally expect elsewhere in the country. Every county in Wyoming does something different when handling troubled youth. Wealthier counties may have diversion programs for kids; poorer counties usually have jail, fines or both. There is no statewide data available in order to accurately track problematic or successful programs in the counties, and there never has been. County Attorneys often provide anecdotal stories about how well their programs are working, but concrete data to substantiate these claims does not exist. Wyoming’s taxpayers deserve to know if their money is being spent efficiently and effectively.

As a result of reviewing all the systemic problems, Inequality in the Equality State made five major recommendations for reform:

• Establish a unified juvenile or family court system with exclusive jurisdiction for all non-traffic juvenile matters and a judiciary professionally trained in juvenile law.

• Create a comprehensive juvenile justice system that applies equally and fairly to all Wyoming juveniles. This system should include the procedural framework for a central intake system that provides uniform procedural criteria for the decision-making steps in juvenile case processing and contain a consistent juvenile detention policy. This policy must be devoid of loopholes and include community-based programs.

• Create a comprehensive juvenile justice system based on restorative justice principles that promotes accountability and increased competency development for youthful offenders, without sacrificing community protection.

• Provide systematic data collection and analysis to guide decision making, assess program effectiveness, and provide assurances of equal treatment.

• Provide a dedicated funding source to ensure statewide accessibility and utilization.

The Joint Judiciary Committee added juvenile justice reform to its interim study issues in 2011, and several of the interim meetings have been dedicated to this issue. Unfortunately, no substantive changes have come from these meetings. County Attorneys are adamant that no changes be made, and lobbied both the Governor’s Office and the Judiciary Committee against making any changes. Few legislators on the committee were interested in real reforms, and some were openly hostile.

As a result, Governor Mead appointed a task force with no budget and all the authority and power that task forces usually have – none. The volunteer facilitator to the task force certainly should be thanked for her dedication and valuable time, but at this point we are not encouraged there will be any positive outcomes from the task force. Yet we continue.

The ACLU of Wyoming is committed to advocating for reforms to our outdated and ineffective juvenile justice system; Wyoming’s youth and our future are worth it.

Linda Burt
Executive Director
ACLU of Wyoming