Blogging the Avery Doninger Case

It is 8:38 in U. S. District Courtroom 4 in New Haven, Connecticut. Fluorescent lights overhead illumine room with its green carpet, wooden benches and leather seats. Ms. Doninger, her mother and her grandmother are all hear early. The grandmother is reading a book by David McCullough. There is a discussion amongst the lawyers and the staff about the positioning of projection devices. Systems has been called. Others appear and concern is expressed about the size of the courtroom and where people will sit.

Folks from the ACLU show up as well as friends of the Doningers. On the way in, one of the U.S. Marshals was a bit surly, asking why I was hear. I asked if this was the U.S. District court. And where Judge Kravitz’ courtroom would be. A second Marshal was much more friendly, asked if I had a cellphone and we joked around.

The guy from Systems has shown up and they talk about where to place the projector. They move things around, which places me in a better place to see. Andy Thibault shows up and I chat with him briefly.

After four hours of testimony, court is adjourned. I’ve headed up to a local café with Wifi so I can put up this post, eat some food, and then put up a summary post later.

Grow up, douchebags!

Blogging the Avery Doninger Case

In a couple of hours, the Avery Doninger Case will start in U.S. District Court in New Haven. Doninger is the student at Lewis Mills High School who was forbidden to run for reelection as class secretary after writing disparaging comments about the school administration in a personal blog. I’ve been blogging about this fairly regularly, as has Andy Thibault at Cool Justice.

He put up a great post last night about the CT ACLU’s Amicus Brief in support of Ms. Doninger. (See the brief here.

I am heading out the door to cover this as a blogger. I am wearing my Blogger shirt that Kim embroidered for me. I doubt the court will have issue with me wearing it, but I’m bringing another shirt just in case.

As he provides his commentary, Andy has one line that made me chuckle. His suggestion to the administration of Lewis Mills High School:

Grow up, douchebags!

The Avery Award for advancing the cause of freedom of speech in Connecticut

Tomorrow, the Avery Doninger case goes before Judge Mark Kravitz in the U.S. District Court in New Haven. Ms. Doninger was class secretary and was forbidden to run for re-election because of a blog post she wrote, on her own time, on her own computer, on a public site. Her mother is suing the school administration for violating her daughter’s freedom of speech.

As I did a little digging, I was surprised to find out that there is already an Avery Award for advancing the cause of Freedom of Speech. This isn’t an award put together rapidly by bloggers concerned about school administrations attempting to limit what students can say on blogs.

The Avery Award is named after Deane C. Avery. The Connecticut website listing Freedom of Information Commissioners has this to say about Mr. Avery.

Prior to his retirement, Deane was editor and co-publisher of the New London Day. He was an early supporter of Freedom of Information legislation in Connecticut and knew a great deal about it before serving as commissioner. He took to the role of commissioner and hearing officer like a duck takes to water. His experience as a journalist and community leader led him to have the greatest respect for both government officials and unempowered, every day citizens, and this showed not only in his decisions, but in the way he dealt with the parties appearing before him at commission hearings and meetings. His wry sense of humor and self-deprecation made him a popular commission member throughout his ten year tenure, during which he was another “work horse” commissioner. Deane is a man of extraordinary integrity and solid judgment. Even in the commission’s most politically-charged case, in which he served as hearing officer and commissioner, he never for a moment wavered from what he thought was right. He served as commissioner from 1985-1995 when newly elected Governor John Rowland declined to re-nominate him.

It isn’t a surprise that The New London Day sponsors the Avery Award. From a 2001 announcement about the award, we find:

The Day of New London will make a statewide award to a person in Connecticut who advances the cause of freedom of speech. The award is named for Deane C. Avery, of Stonington, the retired editor and co-publisher of the newspaper. Mr. Avery served on the state Freedom of Information Commission. The award will be presented at the annual meeting of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

So, what does the Avery award have to do with the Avery Doninger case? Actually, so far, I’ve found two interesting connections. First, the Connecticut website listing Freedom of Information Commissioners goes on to talk about Deane Avery saying:

Andre J. Thibault succeeded Deane Avery in 1995, having been appointed by Governor Rowland. Andy came to the commission in the midst of a career as a reporter, editor and commentator. He enjoyed his work on the commission and put aside his strong opinions to become a fair and impartial decision-maker. He resigned from the commission to accept a position out of state. Andy served as a commissioner from 1995-1996.

I believe this is the same Andy Thibault who has been providing the most detailed and extensive coverage of the case, including several FOI requests at The Cool Justice Report.

Yet what I find even more interesting is that Judge Mark Kravitz received the Deane Avery Award in 1995 in part for his work as a founding director of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government. Their mission statement says:

The Connecticut Foundation for Open Government is dedicated to promoting the open and accountable government essential in a democratic society. It seeks to achieve this by educating policymakers and citizens in general on the need for a free flow of information on all public policy matters.

This year, I would like to nominate the administration of Lewis Mills School and the lawyers for providing a poignant example of why we need the free flow of information. It is my hope that Judge Kravitz will recognize their contributions and give them their due.

Debate Reflections

Plenty of people have posted their reactions to yesterday’s Democratic Debate already, but I thought I would take a little time and post some reflections on the larger issues.

A key theme of the debates was the need for change, yet there was little discussion about changes of the way the debates should be handled. Initially, I was frustrated at the non-answers by the candidates, yet as I listened, my frustration rapidly changed to Stephanapoulos.

It wasn’t the fact that the moderator was a senior advisor to Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, and later became Clinton’s communication director. The real problem was the underlying context of the debate.

Stephanapoulos focused on trying to get the candidates to fight over non-issues, even resorting to quoting Karl Rove about things that don’t really matter. Some people were disappointed with the YouTube debates, but the contrast was striking. The YouTube questions were orders of magnitude better than anything Stephanapouos came up with.

One of the problems with debates is trying to get people to watch them. YouTube was a great hook. Stephanapoulos failed to come up with any good hook, and resorted to the tired old idea of trying to get the candidates to fight. Everyone loves a good fight. Everyone, that is, who is looking for bread and circuses, and not for a debate about the issues that our country must face.

Since the questions were so bad, the avoidance of the questions actually turned out to be about the best you could hope for. Indeed, some of the best moments were when Chris Dodd pointed out that we are not electing a King, but instead are voting for a President that will need to work with Congress. Bill Richardson, likewise, did a good job in countering the flawed basic premises of the debate by focusing on his experience as a diplomat. We need to be focusing on how our leaders can work well with others. The inability to work well with others, whether it be Congress or foreign nations, is one of the biggest problems with the current administration.

Sen. Obama started off with a good comment about how he prepared for the debate by riding the bumper cars at the Iowa fair. It placed the debate in a better context. The image of Sen. Obama stepping out of the bumper cars, with a broad smile, after having been bumped by Sen. Edwards or Sen. Dodd and walking out together with them joking around is a much better image than everyone standing stiffly behind the podiums. Perhaps the next debate should take place in bumper cars. To rebut an opponent, you have to bump into them first. This would be a hook that might get more people watching, make the thing more fun, and remind the candidates that we need to work together as opposed to the style of politics we’ve seen in Washington for the last six years.

This takes me to my thoughts about one of the worst questions, and my disappointment with the responses. George Stephanapoulos was trying to get the candidates to attack Sen. Clinton for being too much of a Washington insider. Talk about the pot trying to get people to call the kettle black.

No, everyone on that stage is too much of a Washington insider, and it would have been great if one of the candidates stepped up, pointed out how much of a Washington insider Stephanapoulos is and then said, yes, we are all too closely tied to Washington. That is why it is so important that we get out and meet people at the Iowa fair and stumping across New Hampshire, and any other place where we can get into a real discussion about real issues with real people.

Yes, the candidates were right. We do need real change in Washington, and it needs to start, right now, starting with the Washington Press Corp.

(Cross posted at DailyKos)

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Hurricane Season

If everything goes according to projections, Thursday, we will be moving out of Orient Lodge, where I’ve lived for over fifteen years to a house in Woodbridge, CT. If everything goes according to current projections, Hurricane Dean will make U.S. landfall on Thursday. Two years ago on August 23 is the day that Tropical Depression Twelve formed. Tropical Depression Twelve later formed into Hurricane Katrina the gulf coast still hasn’t recovered.

Last Monday, I participated in an online conference talking about DeanSpace. This was an effort by various open source programmers to develop websites with social networking tools to help with Gov. Dean’s Presidential campaign. It was an idealistic group that believed that by working together with our own set of skills we could make a difference. After the election, DeanSpace morphed into CivicSpace, and some of the activists joined up with a new project, The Katrina PeopleFinder Project. Its goal was to create a central repository of information about people missing as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

In September, 2005, Ben Smilowitz “contacted the Red Cross to volunteer and was sent to Gulfport, Mississippi where he managed a Client Service Center from mid-September until early October. While his site provided as much as $20 million in 20 days to nearly 20,000 households, the actual support each household received was minimal.”

As a result of his experience, he formed the Disaster Accountability Project to monitor “the public accountability of the US disaster response system”.

Ben describes his effort as follows,

While in Mississippi, I was shocked by the number of gaps in disaster relief services. I tried calling political and media contacts in Washington and remember wishing there was a group or hotline I could call to report the critical gaps in services at the site that I was managing. The media was trying its hardest to report gaps in services and when they did, they were often addressed faster than those that went unreported.

The Disaster Accountability Project is seeking to fill that important function.

Is this a project that those involved with the Katrina PeopleFinder Project will get involved with? I hope so. This hurricane season, let’s be prepared ahead of time. As Hurricane Dean, already a category four storm, heads into the gulf please sign up with the Disaster Accountability Project.

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