Last night’s State of the Union address covered many issues important to Americans, including economic inequality, winding down foreign wars, climate change, pay equity, closing Guantanamo, voting rights, and much more.
But from a civil liberties perspective, was it a home run? We don’t think so. Overall, the speech was rather cautious in the agenda it laid out for the coming year (perhaps a reflection of gridlock in Washington), and there are some critical issues the President must address in his sixth year in office.
Below are six of the things we wish the President would have addressed (or addressed more fully) in the State of the Union:
- Immigration: President Obama commendably reaffirmed the urgent need to pass immigration reform with an inclusive roadmap to citizenship, and we are particularly glad that he recognized the enormous contributions of undocumented members of our communities. We would have liked, however, to hear not just about what Congress should do, but about what the President will do to help millions of families who continue to suffer because of the administration’s mass deportation policy. As the number of deportations during President Obama’s administration is set to hit 2 million—more than under any other president—and massive militarization continues to harm border communities, it is crucial that the administration use its authority to reform its policies and practices. The President must commit to border and interior enforcement that ends racial profiling and upholds American values of due process, and humane exercise of discretion when enforcing the law.
- Criminal Justice: In a speech largely about inequality, we had hoped that the President would talk about the crisis of overincarceration in our criminal justice system. We know the President and the Attorney General care about our needlessly bloated prisons and the racial discrepancies that dominate our criminal justice system, but we are concerned about the lack of federal progress on these issues. Some states have implemented smart reforms to stop growth of their prison populations, but the federal system has continued to expand. The President should have urged Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act last night, because we need to roll back mandatory minimums. Judges should have the ability to make sentences fit the crime, not be forced to send people away for extreme terms that are way out of proportion to the crime.
- LGBT Nondiscrimination: This is just getting old now. As a candidate for president in 2008, then-Senator Obama told the Houston GLBT Political Caucus that, if elected, he would support an LGBT nondiscrimination requirement for businesses that contract with the federal government. President Obama has now been in office for more than 1,800 days, and yet there is still no such requirement in place for federal contractors. President Obama should have made clear once and for all his intention to sign an executive order to put these common sense protections in place. In a night when so many other executive orders were announced, not stating an intention to issue this one was an odd omission.
- Surveillance: We are glad that the President said that he would work with Congress to reform our surveillance. But he didn’t say that he would stop surveillance of everyday people and bulk collection of private information, and so it still falls short. The President must embrace the much more far-reaching reforms proposed by his own Review Group, Congress, and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The last seven months have revealed that there are many programs, obtaining many different types of information, and they interconnect to create a vast spying regime.
- Racial Profiling: President Obama has gone on the record before in favor of ending the pervasive practice of racial profiling. Based on comments he’s made in the past, it’s clear the President believes that profiling goes against our Constitution and our country’s value of equality. Unfortunately, his administration has yet to issue updated Guidance banning the use of racial profiling by law enforcement, and we would’ve loved to hear him make that announcement in his speech last night. Profiling based on race or religious beliefs and practice is ineffective, erodes public trust in law enforcement, and violates the Constitution. The President must stop law enforcement agencies from discriminating against Americans because of the color of their skin or the way they dress.
- Privacy: Though the President did mention his commitment to broadband access – something we have long advocated for as a critical step to ensure that all Americans can take advantage of their 1st Amendment rights – we are disappointed that he did not mention the need to modernize the Electronic Privacy Communications Act. This law was last updated in 1986; since then, technology has advanced at breakneck speed while the law has remained at a standstill. This outdated law allows the government to intercept and access a treasure trove of information about who you are, where you go, and what you do, which is being collected by cell phone providers, search engines, social networking sites, and other websites every day. Online privacy law shouldn’t be older than the Web, and Americans shouldn’t have to choose between new technology and privacy.
Okay, we said six. But this list just wouldn’t be complete without including pay equity!
- Pay Equity: The President spoke eloquently about the need for equal pay for equal work, calling the wage gap “wrong” and an “embarrassment.” Unfortunately, he didn’t use the moment to call on Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. Moreover, he also didn’t announce any plans to issue an executive order banning retaliation against the employees of federal contractors for disclosing or inquiring about their wages. While that would not reach as far as the Paycheck Fairness Act, it would be an important first step that the President could do right now to help protect women in federal contracting from wage discrimination.
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