Tag: fire

Putting Out Fires by Throwing Money on Them

Now that forest fires are in the news, someone noticed that President Obama has proposed a new way of funding wild firefighting. Instead of borrowing from its fuels treatment funds when the Forest Service exhausts its regular fire-fighting budget, Obama wants to let the agency draw upon a new “special disaster account” that is “adjusted each year to reflect the 10-year average cost of responding to such events.”

Treating excessive firefighting costs by giving the Forest Service more money makes as much sense as attempting to suppress forest fires by throwing gasoline on them. In case you don’t hear the sarcasm, it makes no sense at all.

Obama is focusing on the wrong problem, the drawdown of funds intended for fuel treatments. The real problem is the incentives the Forest Service has to spend wildly on firefighting.

As far as I know, no democracy has given any government agency a blank check to accomplish any goal–except the Forest Service for fighting fires. Even the Pentagon was given budgets for fighting World War II, the Cold War, and other wars. But in 1908, Congress gave the Forest Service a blank check for firefighting, saying the agency could spend as much as it needed to suppress fires, and Congress would reimburse it later.

The Constitution Still Applies on College Campuses

Few could imagine a more troubling free speech and due process case than that of Hayden Barnes. Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University in Georgia, peacefully protested the planned construction of a $30 million campus parking garage that was the pet project of university president Ronald Zaccari. A “personally embarrassed” Zaccari didn’t take kindly to that criticism and vowed to retaliate.

Ignoring longstanding legal precedent, the Valdosta State University Student Handbook (a legally binding contract), and the counsel of fellow administrators, Zaccari ordered staff to look into Barnes’s academic records, his medical history, his religion, and his registration with the VSU Access Office. The federal district court found that Barnes’s due process rights had been violated and denied Zaccari qualified immunity from liability for his actions, but also interpreted Barnes’s First Amendment claim narrowly and sharply reduced his award of attorney’s fees.

In the first appeal of this case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (decided in 2012), Cato joined a brief filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on behalf of 15 organizations arguing that qualified immunity was inappropriate given Zaccari’s brazen violation of Barnes’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity, restating that malicious public officials aren’t entitled to special protections when they clearly violate the rights of another.

Now again before the Eleventh Circuit on the question of damages, Barnes is appealing the district court’s narrow interpretation of his First Amendment claim and the way it handled attorney’s fees. Cato has again joined with FIRE and numerous other groups on a brief supporting the full vindication of Barnes’s freedom of speech.

In this latest brief, we argue that the district court’s ruling threatens to encourage further First Amendment violations by inexplicably letting the defendants off on lesser claims (which weren’t even pled)—even though Barnes’s complaint clearly set forth detailed allegations of First Amendment-violating retaliation. We also argue that the district court erroneously applied a severe across-the-board reduction of its attorney’s fees award, even though that amount was supposed to address costs already deducted from the total. The court even granted reverse attorney’s fees for some of the defendants who were held not liable, going so far as calling those claims frivolous solely because they were unsuccessful.

The Eleventh Circuit should rework the attorney’s fees award, especially given the incalculable public benefit derived from such suits. Students who stand up for their constitutional rights are rare, and imposing unfavorable fee awards will only make it more difficult for them to secure strong representation. (Barnes’s counsel is the renowned First Amendment lawyer, and friend of Cato, Robert Corn-Revere.) While the district court did acknowledge that Hayden Barnes’s First Amendment rights were violated, its remedy consisted of half-hearted half-measures  We hope that the Eleventh Circuit corrects that mistake, sending university officials the loud, clear message that constitutional protections don’t stop at the edge of campus.

‘Marsupial Justice’ Is a Natural Product of Federal Overreach

Earlier this month I blogged about the U.S. Department of Education’s recent push to eliminate free speech and due process on campus.  More and more people are starting to notice this attempt by the department’s Office of Civil Rights to force colleges — by threatening an investigation and loss of federal funds — to redefine sexual harrassment to include unwelcome flirting and sex jokes and then lower the burden of proof they use when determining whether students or staff are guilty of violating the new code of behavior.

And now we have a characteristically astute article by the Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone.  Money quote:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has shown an admirable openness to argument and intellectual debate. Perhaps someone will ask him whether he wants his department to be encouraging kangaroo courts and marsupial justice on campuses across the country.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing doesn’t just take care of itself.  Greg Lukianoff and his team at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have been doing a workmanlike job protecting student and academic freedoms, but at base this policy exposes the sorts of pathologies that emerge from a federal government that has too many tentacles in too many places. 

What is the Department of Education doing setting any sort of standards for speech, conduct, and adjudication of campus disputes — good or bad, strict or lax?  Why do we even have a federal Department of Education in the first place?

Due Process Stops at the Campus Gates?

People in the D.C. area maye be familiar with the tragic tale of Fairfax teacher Sean Lanigan, who was falsely accused of sexual molestation, resulting in termination and a destroyed reputation.  As pointed out by friend of Cato and Cato Supreme Court Review contributor Hans Bader, however, the Department of Education is pushing a policy that would allow for more Sean Lanigans, even in cases not involving anything close to rape or molestation:

If the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has its way, more teachers like him will end up being fired even if they are acquitted by a jury of any wrongdoing.  It sent a letter to school officials on April 4 ordering them to lower the burden of proof they use when determining whether students or staff are guilty of sexual harassment or sexual assault.   According to the Department of Education’s demands, schools must find people guilty if there is a mere 51% chance that they are guilty – a so-called preponderance of the evidence standard.   So if an accused is found not guilty under a higher burden of proof – like the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that applies in criminal cases – the accused will still be subject to disciplinary action under the lower burden of proof dictated by the Education Department.

As Wendy Kaminer explains, the DoE would also like to strip the accused of their right to cross-examination:

Campus investigations and hearings involving harassment or rape charges are notoriously devoid of concern for the rights of students accused; “kangaroo courts” are common, and OCR ‘s letter seems unlikely to remedy them. Students accused of harassment should not be allowed to confront (or directly question) their accusers, according to OCR, because cross-examination of a complainant “may be traumatic or intimidating.” (Again, elevating the feelings of a complainant over the rights of an alleged perpetrator, who may have been falsely accused, reflects a presumption of guilt.) Students may be represented by counsel in disciplinary proceedings, at the discretion of the school, but counsel is not required, even when students risk being found guilty of sexual assaults (felonies pursuant to state penal laws) under permissive standards of proof used in civil cases, standards mandated by OCR.

Now, it is undoubtedly extraordinarily difficult for a rape victim to face her attacker, but lowering the standards under which someone is judged for that crime and not allowing the accused to question his accuser opens the door to using accusation as a weapon, just as in Lanigan’s case or that of the Duke lacrosse team.  Justice (what lawyers call “due process”) demands, among other things, that both accuser and accused have their day in court, and that there be a presumption of innocence.  It is no more just for an innocent person to be smeared and forever tarnished – if not convicted and imprisoned – than it is to let a guilty man go free.  Indeed, as Blackstone famously said, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” 

What’s more, as Foundation for Individual Rights in Education president Greg Lukianoff details, it’s not just accused rapists whose rights are prejudiced under the new OCR policy, but those who make bad jokes:

California State University–Monterey policies state that sexual harassment “may range from sexual innuendoes made at inappropriate times, perhaps in the guise of humor, to coerced sexual relations.” UC Berkeley lists “humor and jokes about sex in general that make someone feel uncomfortable” as harassment. Alabama State University lists “behavior that causes discomfort, embarrassment or emotional distress” in its harassment codes. Iowa State University states that harassment “can range from unwelcome sexual flirtations and inappropriate put-downs of individual persons or classes of people to serious physical abuses such as sexual assault.”

This disconnect between basic principles of free speech and due process creates what Lukianoff calls “a perfect storm for rights violations”:

By making it clear that OCR would be aggressively pursuing harassment claims, by mandating extensive changes to many universities’ due process protections, but not requiring universities to adopt a uniform standard for harassment, OCR has supercharged the power of existing campus speech codes. OCR could have done our nation’s colleges a favor if it required universities to adopt a uniform definition of harassment in the same breath as it required them to aggressively police it.

FIRE has done heroic work in protecting student rights, so you should really read all of Lukianoff’s indictment of the new policy. 

The Department of Education needs to rescind/clarify this mess.  Speech is not a crime, but even the rights of those accused of crimes should not be subordinated to misplaced compassion or political correctness.

Whistleblowing Scandal at UCLA

Lately I seem to have been blogging – and filing briefs – a fair bit on campus First Amendment issues, regarding both students and professors.  The threats to free speech and academic freedom stretch far beyond the halls of Widener Universty and concern more than just the rules of political correctness.

This month, UCLA’s James Enstrom (34 years a professor) is fighting his dismissal from UCLA for submitting a paper to a regulatory board that denied that diesel particulates cause 2,000 premature deaths in California per year.  The scientific literature published subsequent to his initial findings support his thesis and the conclusions his work refuted turned out to be written by a fraud who received his Ph.D. from a diploma mill.  In short, he was fired for telling the truth.

Reason.tv produced an excellent (and infuriating) video detailing the story.   The story exposes a corrupt political process, bogus credentials, cronyism, and trumped-up charges against a man guilty only of scientific rigor:

Thankfully, our friends at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have taken Professor Enstrom’s case. You can read more about the sorry tale here.  I wish the best of luck to FIRE and Prof. Enstrom in their fight.

Even University Presidents Are Bound by the Constitution

Few could imagine a more troubling free speech and due process case than that of Hayden Barnes. 

Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University in Georgia, peacefully protested the planned construction of a $30 million campus parking garage that was the pet project of university president Ronald Zaccari.  A “personally embarrassed” Zaccari did not take kindly to that criticism and endeavored to retaliate against Barnes — ignoring longstanding legal precedent, the Valdosta State University Student Handbook (a legally binding contract), and the counsel of fellow administrators.  Zaccari even ordered staff to look into Barnes’s academic records, his medical history, his religion, and his registration with the VSU Access Office!

The district court found that Barnes’s due process rights had indeed been violated and denied Zaccari qualified immunity from liability for his actions. Now on appeal, Cato joined a brief filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on behalf of 15 organizations arguing that qualified immunity is inappropriate here given Zaccari’s brazen violation of Barnes’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process.  As stated in the brief, the “desire of some administrators to censor unwanted, unpopular, or merely inconvenient speech on campus is matched by a willingness to seize upon developments in the law that grant them greater leeway to do so.”  The brief thus asks the Eleventh Circuit to affirm the denial of qualified immunity on both First Amendment and due process grounds.

First, the immense importance of constitutional rights on public university campus is due in no small part to the reluctance of school administrators to abide by clearly established law protecting student rights.  Second, Zaccari knew or should have known that his actions violated Barnes’ rights and were illegal retaliation against constitutionally protected speech. 

Qualified immunity is intended to protect public officials who sincerely believe their actions are reasonable and constitutional, not those who willfully and maliciously ignore well known law in a determined effort to deprive another of constitutional rights. A denial of qualified immunity here would vindicate those rights and reinforce school administrators’ obligation to protect and abide by them. 

The case of Barnes v. Zaccari will be heard by the Eleventh Circuit this spring or summer.  Thanks to legal associate Nicholas Mosvick for his help on the brief and with this post.

Free Speech Belongs on Campuses Too

Speaking of free speech, last night I had an Obamacare panel at Widener University, which is currently having its own little speech-related brouhaha.  (Getting there was a bit of a hassle because I was held up at the Wilmington Amtrak station by Vice President Biden’s entourage — but I didn’t end up in a closet, so I guess it could have been worse.)

There are strange things afoot at the tiny Delaware law school, specifically to tenured professor Lawrence Connell, who also happens to be the adviser to the school’s Federalist Society chapter. From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

Widener University School of Law is attempting to fire longtime criminal law professor Lawrence Connell by charging him with dubious violations of the school’s harassment code, such as using the term “black folks” in class and using the names of law school Dean Linda L. Ammons and other law school colleagues as characters in class hypotheticals. Although a faculty panel has already recommended that Widener drop its “dismissal for cause” proceedings against Connell, administrators have reportedly induced students to issue further complaints under a new process that forces Connell to keep the details of the proceedings secret. Connell, who is represented by attorney Thomas S. Neuberger, also requested help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

“Not only do the charges against Professor Connell appear to be either unsubstantiated or totally meritless, but even after the faculty refused to assent to his firing Widener has found a new, ‘confidential’ procedure to use against him,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Professor Connell has already addressed the charges, but now he cannot publicly discuss the details of his prosecution out of fear of punishment for ‘retaliatory action’ if he reveals them.”

Although Widener is a private university, a faculty member receiving such treatment on dubious charges should raise some eyebrows in legal academia. If there is something to the charges, let them be aired in public. While this is not a constitutional issue, I’m sure the law school administration is well aware of the importance of both due process and intellectual freedom. To that end, either the professor should be afforded the dignity of defending himself to his accusers or this nonsense should be put to bed.

You can read more about the case here. Also, if the state of today’s law schools interests you, I cannot recommend strongly enough my colleague Walter Olson’s new book, Schools for Misrule: Legal Academia and an Overlawyered America.

Thanks to Jonathan Blanks for his help with this blogpost.