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This Week in Civil Liberties (9/21/2012)

Rekha Arulanantham,
Litigation Fellow,
ACLU National Prison Project
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September 21, 2012

What excuse did an Indiana public school use in order to fire a teacher for becoming pregnant through IVF treatment?

What device packed with private information like emails, photos and call history can be seized and searched without a court order? (Hint: It might be in your pocket or purse right now.)

Why do Americans know so little about the Constitution they claim to revere?

How do debt collectors and prosecutors use the criminal justice system to financially exploit vulnerable Americans?

Why do politicians push harder for better privacy protections when they find themselves victims of bad privacy policy?

Fired for My Family

Emily Herx, a teacher at a Catholic school in Indiana, was fired after the school discovered she used in-vitro fertilization to try to become pregnant. The teacher filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and later a lawsuit in federal court alleging discrimination on the basis of sex and disability. The ACLU has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. It would be illegal for almost any employer to fire an employee who is (or is trying to become) pregnant. But in this case, the school is arguing it is entitled to discriminate because it is a religiously affiliated school.

Keeping the Government Out of Your Smartphone

Smart phones can be a cop’s best friend. They are packed with private information like emails, text messages, photos, and calling history. Unsurprisingly, law enforcement agencies now routinely seize and search phones. This occurs at traffic stops, during raids of a target’s home or office, and during interrogations and stops at the U.S. border. These searches are frequently conducted without any court order.

However, just because the courts have permitted law enforcement agencies to search seized smart phones, that doesn’t mean that youhave any obligation to make it easy for them.

Happy Constitution Day!

It turns out that although most Americans (over three-quarters) say they are very proud of our Constitution, only five percent could accurately answer 10 basic questionsabout its contents. Sixty-twopercent couldn’t name the three branches of the federal government (Legislature, Executive, Judiciary) and one-third couldn’t name even one branch; over half did not know the number of senators (100); only six percent could name “the four rights” guaranteed by the First Amendment (free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of peaceable assembly and the right to petition for redress of grievances – or is that really five or even six rights?) and one-quarter couldn’t name any; one-sixth incorrectly believe the Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation.

Sept. 17 was the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. If you want to give the Constitution a birthday present, join or rededicate yourself to supporting its defenders.

Debt Collectors Aren’t Prosecutors and Shouldn’t Pretend to Be

According to a recent New York Times article, prosecutors and debt collectors are working together to threaten bad check writers with jail, even when no crime has been committed.

Here’s how it works. Someone writes a check to a merchant such as Wal-Mart (whether the person intends to defraud the merchant is irrelevant). The check bounces. The person then receives a letter signed by the local district attorney, on official letterhead, stating that the person can be sent to jail unless he or she agrees to pay the amount of the check, plus fees, plus the cost of a “financial accountability” class. The person is not informed that the letter is actually sent by a debt collection company or that no one at the district attorney’s office has reviewed the case. If the person agrees to take the class, the class participation fee is split between the debt collection company and the district attorney’s office.

When Privacy Gets Personal for Policymakers

To those of us who think about privacy a lot, it’s not just funny but also amazing how, when public officials discover they can be at the receiving end of bad privacy policies, it tends to produce an immediate, electric effect on policy. We’ve already written about the Video Privacy Protection Act, which was passed after a journalist obtained Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video rental records. At a time when video stores were a primary means of accessing pornography, Congress sat bolt upright and quickly passed an unusually strong law—albeit one that covered only video rental records and failed to address any of the other privacy problems the nation was facing.

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