Roundup: West Virginia school district promises to bar staff-led prayer

Tuesday, July 25, 2000

A lawyer for Clay County schools has promised that the school district
will prohibit staff from leading students in prayer. Howard Seufer made the
promise recently in a letter to Hillary Chiz, executive director of the West
Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. But the letter also
says the county Board of Education will not bar individuals and groups from
“private and truly voluntary prayer” by students and employees. School staff
members are allowed to pray, but will not be allowed to lead students in
prayer, district Superintendent Jerry Linkinoggor said. Individual student
prayer, which is protected by the U.S. Constitution, was not the issue, Chiz
said. The ACLU had threatened to
sue the Board of Education following reports that staff and faculty were
leading prayers in schools. Associated Press

Hawaii: Hearing set for ACLU challenge to city’s street-performer

A hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 15 on a lawsuit filed by the
American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii challenging the constitutionality of a
new law regulating Waikiki street performers. The ordinance was supposed to
take effect July 12, but the city agreed to hold off enforcement until the
hearing on the ACLU request for an injunction to prevent the city from
enforcing the law. The ordinance restricts street performances to the hours
between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. at six locations in Waikiki. It also requires
performers to get permits. Violations carry fines up to $200. The lawsuit
contends that the ordinance violates First Amendment rights by prohibiting
religious, political and artistic expression in almost all of Waikiki.
Associated Press

Wyoming: Judge sides with newspaper over release of jail

Eighth District Judge Keith G. Kautz ruled July 19 that a report about
how sheriff’s deputies handled a rash of suicide attempts at the Laramie County
Jail should be made public. He ruled in favor of the
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle of Cheyenne in
its open-records lawsuit against
the Laramie County Sheriff’s Department, stating that the jail belongs to the
public and almost all of the independent report “must be disclosed.” He allowed
one exception to full disclosure, a section on a recommendation for
“environmental changes,” which will not be released. In 1999, nine inmates
attempted suicide and two were successful. The increase in suicide attempts
prompted Sheriff Roger Allsop to ask for an investigation by the National
Institute of Corrections. The Tribune-Eagle filed the
lawsuit in November 1999 after
Allsop refused to release the full report. Associated Press

Alabama: School board says students not punished for refusing to
say pledge

Students at Parrish High School are not punished for refusing to say
the Pledge of Allegiance or salute the flag, a Walker County, Ala., school
board attorney said. Russell B. Robertson disputed the claims of two Parrish
students in a federal lawsuit filed
earlier this month. Students do say the pledge at Parrish, Robertson told
The Birmingham News in a story July
21, but they are not forced to. The suit claims the Walker County school board
implemented a policy at Parrish requiring students to say the pledge during the
first class of the day. The suit says the policy violates Parrish students’
right to free speech, expression and freedom of religion. It seeks class-action
status. Associated Press

California: Federal appeals court upholds order keeping station
off air

Rebuffed once again in court, San Francisco-based radio pirate Stephen
Dunifer says he will count on the air waves to continue his crusade against the
broadcast conglomerates he says are drowning out the real voice of American
citizens. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 20 that he had no
grounds to challenge the order that
shut down his low-power, commercial-free “Free Radio Berkeley” because he
did not apply for a license or waiver through the Federal Communications
Commission. Dunifer says he plans to stage a nationwide protest Sept. 20 to
coincide with the first day of the National Association of Broadcasters annual
meeting. Dunifer and other activists are spreading the word about an event they
have dubbed the “Micropower Millennium Turn-on,” asking supporters to begin
setting up low-power stations that will all go on the air at exactly the same
time. Associated Press

Louisiana: Director Oliver Stone gives deposition in

Lawyers for a shooting victim in a convenience store robbery began
questioning director Oliver Stone about his movie “Natural Born Killers.” The
family of Patsy Byers, who was paralyzed in the shooting and died in 1997 of
cancer, says Stone’s film triggered the attack on the Ponchatoula convenience
store clerk in 1995. The lawsuit
seeks damages from Stone and movie distributor Time Warner, claiming the film’s
intent was to incite violence. Byers was shot by Sarah Edmondson, then 18,
during a two-state crime spree with her boyfriend, Benjamin Darras. Edmondson
has told investigators that prior to the crimes, she and Darras had watched
Stone’s movie about a young couple who commits a series of murders. The
filmmakers say the movie is protected by free-speech provisions in the First
Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Associated Press

Texas: Judge deals blow to groups seeking insurance data

Judge Jeanne Muerer of Austin on July 21 allowed insurance companies
to keep secret auto policy data that have been sought by a group that claims
minorities and the poor are regularly denied coverage. Muerer granted a
temporary injunction to auto insurance companies that had sued to block the
release of the information showing where the companies are writing policies by
ZIP code. Consumer groups had argued that the data, collected by the Department
of Insurance, should be made public because it would show whether the insurers
were illegally “redlining” low-income people and minorities by failing to
provide them coverage. In 1997, the state Department of Insurance launched an
investigation into the market practices of insurance companies doing business
in Texas, ordering the release of the data. Several of the companies sued,
arguing that the information is exempt from release under the state’s
open-records law because it is proprietary. Ajury trial of the auto insurers
lawsuit is scheduled for December. The temporary restraining order remains in
effect until the trial. Associated Press

New Mexico: City settles public-records suit with newspaper,
watchdog group

Settling a public-records lawsuit brought by the
Albuquerque Journal and the New
Mexico Foundation for Open Government, the city of Rio Rancho filed an
agreement July 17 to disclose how much an insurance fund paid the family of a
man shot to death by city police. The agreement contains provisions that could
make it harder for cities to try to keep such settlements secret in the future.
The city and the New Mexico Self Insurers Fund, created by the state municipal
league, settled a lawsuit with the family of David James, who was shot at least
six times in 1998 after threatening three officers with what they thought was a
weapon but turned out to be a ceramic cross. Under the agreement, the insurance
fund will circulate a statement telling municipal clients that cash payments in
settlement agreements may be public record — even if there is a
confidentiality pact between the parties. The fund also agreed to reimburse the
newspaper and the watchdog group more than $35,000 in attorney’s fees.
Associated Press

South Carolina: Newspaper sues sheriff for access to disciplinary

The Herald of Rock Hill,
S.C., is suing the York County sheriff for what the newspaper says is failure
to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Columbia Attorney Jay
Bender filed the suit July 19 on behalf of The
and reporter Ray Burton after Sheriff Bruce Bryant denied
two FOI requests from the newspaper for access to several deputies’
disciplinary records and reports of misconduct. Sheriff’s office lawyer
Elizabeth Robinson told The Herald
in a letter that disciplinary letters or records of suspension are exempt from
disclosure to the public. So the newspaper sued. The records sought concern the
case of a Rock Hill woman who complained about a deputy she had been dating. In
March, Lori Williams said the deputy threatened to distribute nude photos of
her. In June, Williams was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
Williams contended the arrest was payback for the complaint. Associated

Pennsylvania: Protest puppet maker closed by city inspectors, but
reopens later

An art studio where activists had been making signs, puppets and
floats to use to protest the Republican National Convention was condemned July
21 by city inspectors — but reopened that night. Spiral Q’s studio was
closed for having dangerous electrical conditions, an inoperable fire alarm and
flammable materials, said Deputy Commissioner Dominic Verdi of the Department
of Licenses and Inspections. The five-story downtown building also houses the
offices of two artists and a private club. Within hours of the closure, city
officials rushed to appease angry activists. The building’s owner brought in an
electrician and installed fire systems. Spiral Q workers also must store paints
and other flammable liquids in new, safer containers. Associated Press

New Jersey: Court lets utility charge customers for charity

A state appeals court last week approved New Jersey-American Water
Co.’s policy of passing along a part of its costs for charitable contributions
to its 336,000 customers. The state Ratepayer Advocate had opposed the
passthrough charge, saying among other things that it violated residents’ First
Amendment rights to associate with charities of their own choosing. But a
three-judge panel of the state appeals court said July 21 that overall the
donations did not infringe on residents’ First Amendment rights because the
money went to noncontroversial local groups such as ambulance squads, fire
companies and schools. The court also noted the charity passthrough amounted to
about 8 cents a year for typical homeowners, saying it had “no appreciable
impact” on the rates paid by consumers. But the opinion did suggest that the
judges might have looked at the issue differently if the charity passthrough
had a larger impact on rates. Associated Press

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