Common Dreams

Clarence Thomas is lone dissenter in free speech SCOTUS case involving cursing teenager

In a landmark ruling for student free speech in the digital era, the United State Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a Pennsylvania high school violated a cheerleader's First Amendment right to freedom of speech when it disciplined her following a profanity-laden social media post.

The justices ruled 8-1 in Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L. (pdf) in favor of Brandi Levy, who was kicked off the junior varsity cheerleading team at Mahanoy Area High School in 2017 after she posted a Snapchat photo of herself and a friend flipping their middle fingers with the text, "fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything." The post was published off campus and after school hours.

"The school itself has an interest in protecting a student's unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off campus, because America's public schools are the nurseries of democracy," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter in the case.

"It might be tempting to dismiss B. L.'s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections," Breyer wrote. "But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary."


Breyer also wrote that the high court does not "now set forth a broad, highly general First Amendment rule stating just what counts as 'off campus' speech and whether or how ordinary First Amendment standards must give way off campus to a school's special need to prevent... substantial disruption of learning-related activities."

Levy, who is now an 18-year-old college student, welcomed the ruling.

"The school went too far, and I'm glad that the Supreme Court agrees," she said in a statement after the decision. "I was frustrated, I was 14 years old, and I expressed my frustration the way teenagers do today. Young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get to school."

"I never could have imagined that one simple snap would turn into a Supreme Court case, but I'm proud that my family and I advocated for the rights of millions of public school students," she added.

Civil liberties advocates also hailed the ruling as one of the most important free speech decisions in decades.



"Protecting young people's free speech rights when they are outside of school is vital, and this is a huge victory for the free speech rights of millions of students who attend our nation's public schools," said ACLU legal director David Cole.

"The school in this case asked the court to allow it to punish speech that it considered 'disruptive,' regardless of where it occurs," Cole continued. "If the court had accepted that argument, it would have put in peril all manner of young people's speech, including their expression on politics, school operations, and general teen frustrations."

"The message from this ruling is clear," added Cole. "Free speech is for everyone, and that includes public school students."

Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania—which represented Levy—said, "I am proud of our team at the ACLU, who effectively argued before three courts that public school students should not be monitored 24/7 by school officials."

"I am especially proud of Brandi and her family, who stood up for one of the most fundamental rights that we cherish in this country, the right to speak freely without government interference," added Walczak.

'Existential risk': Leaked IPCC climate report draft 'reads like a 4,000-page indictment' of humanity's failure

Agence France-Presse reported Monday on the contents of a leaked draft of a United Nations intergovernmental climate panel report which warned that devastating effects of a warming world are set to hit far sooner than previously thought, with impacts including an additional tens of millions of people facing hunger by 2050.

"This is a warning of existential risk. Of survival. Of collapse," said climate movement Extinction Rebellion in response to AFP's reporting on what the draft contained.

The draft Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) document warns of sweeping impacts on weather events, food, ecosystems, and disease—changes expected even if global temperature rise is kept under the Paris climate agreement's second threshold of 2°Celsius. It also calls for systems-wide changes to avert a worst-case climate scenario.

"By far the most comprehensive catalogue ever assembled of how climate change is upending our world, the report reads like a 4,000-page indictment of humanity's stewardship of the planet," reported AFP.

The final document is set to be released in February at the end of the formal review process.

IPCC responded to the media reporting with a statement indicating the draft document is likely based on the Second-Order Draft of the Working Group II report, which was circulated for review by governments and experts in December and January.

Because it is a confidential working document, the IPCC said it would not comment on the draft.

In a lengthy Twitter thread responding to the reporting, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe called the draft's assessment rightly "blunt" though unsurprising given that it's a synthesis report.

Referring to scientists, she added: "We've realized that if we don't spell out the fact that it's our civilization we've put on the chopping block ourselves, in words that everyone can understand, emphasizing risks that matter to everyone on this planet, who will?"

"Climate change isn't just one more priority on our already over-crowded list," Hayhoe wrote. "It is a threat multiplier that affects every single other priority already on it, from the air we breathe to the food we eat."

Despite the draft's grim assessment, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg found reason for hope.

Speaking to AFP, she said the document "confirms what we already knew"—that "the situation is very dire and that we need to act right now."

"At least I find that it's very hopeful," she said, "that many people are becoming more and more ready to tell it like it is," because "we can of course not face this crisis unless we tell it like it is, unless we are adult enough to tell the truth and to face the reality."

She added that "this could be something that could... wake people up, which is very hopeful."

Sanders rips GOP for remaining 'loyal to the Big Lie'

After Senate Republicans unanimously blocked debate on a far-reaching and popular voting rights bill, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont late Tuesday joined the chorus demanding an end to the 60-vote legislative filibuster and slammed the GOP for remaining "loyal to the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election."

"It is a disgrace that at a time when authoritarianism, conspiracy theories, and political violence are on the rise, not a single Republican in the United States Senate has the courage to even debate whether we should protect American democracy or not," Sanders said in a statement. "Meanwhile, in state houses and governor's mansions across the country, Republicans are shamefully working overtime to make it harder for poor people, people of color, young people, and people with disabilities to participate in the American democratic system."

Every member of the Senate Democratic caucus—including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the only Senate Democrat who has not co-sponsored the For the People Act—voted in favor of moving forward with debate on the bill Tuesday. But under current Senate rules, which Manchin and other conservative Democrats have refused to touch, a 60-vote supermajority is required to overcome a filibuster, effectively giving the Republican minority veto power.

Following Tuesday's vote, Sanders said that "there's no issue in front of us right now that is more critical for the future of our country than protecting the fundamental right of every American to vote."

"If we are serious about calling ourselves a democracy we must make it easier for people to participate, not harder," the Vermont senator continued. "Now is the time for majority rule in the Senate. We must end the filibuster, pass sweeping voting rights legislation, and protect our democracy."

The outcome of Tuesday's vote was widely expected, and progressive activists are pledging to stage protests nationwide in the coming weeks to pressure Senate Democrats to end the 60-vote filibuster and pass legislation combating state Republicans' attacks on the franchise, which GOP lawmakers have justified by parroting Trump's false claims about widespread voter fraud.

But as progressive advocacy groups and lawmakers singled out the filibuster as a key obstacle standing in the way of voting rights legislation, neither President Joe Biden nor Vice President Kamala Harris nor Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) mentioned in the 60-vote rule in their statements and remarks after Tuesday's vote.

Biden, who has faced criticism for failing to use his bully pulpit to build momentum for the For the People Act, vowed that "this fight is far from over" and that he will "have more to say on this next week."

Harris, for her part, said the White House will "lift up leaders in the states who are working to stop anti-voter legislation, and work with leaders in Congress to advance federal legislation that will strengthen voting rights."

Eliminating or weakening the filibuster would require the support of all 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus plus a tie-breaking vote from Harris, who has previously voiced support for scrapping the 60-vote threshold.

"[Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell led his caucus to embrace the legacy of Strom Thurmond and use Jim Crow-era tactics to block debate over desperately-needed reforms to protect voting rights and return power to the people," Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible, said in a statement Tuesday, referring to the late segregationist senator from South Carolina who mounted a 24-hour talking filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

"The question now is whether congressional Democrats and President Biden join forces in order to repel the attacks on our democracy," Levin added. "Every elected official, including President Biden, must be all in to do what is needed to protect our democracy from Republican attack. Democracy is under threat. Fascism is rising. Time is running out. It's time for everyone to stop playing by Republican rules, or everyone will lose."

'His silence is breathtaking': Biden under fire for going silent on voting rights

With Senate Republicans expected to successfully filibuster the For the People Act on Tuesday, progressive activists, lawmakers, and some prominent figures within the Democratic mainstream are criticizing President Joe Biden for failing to use his bully pulpit to publicly fight for the popular bill as the GOP assault on ballot access intensifies nationwide.

"The For the People Act will be voted on today. Where's Biden?" asked Robert Reich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who served as Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration.

"Why isn't he making the case to the American people? Why isn't he strong-arming Manchin? Why isn't he on the Hill buttonholing senators? The most important voting rights bill in 56 years. His silence is breathtaking," Reich continued. "I like Biden but he's been AWOL on voting rights and ending the filibuster, which are critical to everything else America must achieve."

In late March, the president condemned Republican-led voter suppression efforts in Georgia and dozens of other states as "pernicious" and promised to "do everything in [his] power" to protect the franchise.

But while the White House insists that protecting voting rights remains at the top of Biden's agenda, progressives say the president has been missing in action as GOP attacks on voting rights continue to advance in state legislatures across the country. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Republicans have introduced at least 389 voter suppression bills in 48 states since the beginning of the year, and 22 have become law.

"Is saving democracy a priority for this administration or not?" Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible, wrote in a series of tweets on Monday. "Right-wing zealots are systematically dismantling our democratic institutions. I don't want to see some tepid public statement."

Pointing to the aggressive public messaging that past presidents used to advance their legislative priorities, Levin wrote: "I hope Joe Biden cares about saving our democracy as much as Bill Clinton cared about NAFTA. As much Barack Obama cared about the Affordable Care Act. As much as every Republican president cares about tax cuts for their donors."

"Democracy is under threat," Levin added. "Fascism is rising. Time is running out. It's time for the president to get off the sidelines and into the game, or we're all going to lose."

Asked during a Monday briefing to specify what Biden has done in recent weeks to bolster the Senate's chances of passing a voting rights bill to counter GOP-led suppression attempts, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the president has "had conversations, obviously, with members about supporting this legislation, including Senator [Joe] Manchin," the only member of the Senate Democratic caucus who has refused to co-sponsor the For the People Act.

"As it relates to the filibuster: You know, I don't think you have to take it from us," Psaki added. "That would be Congress moving forward or making a decision. If the vote is unsuccessful tomorrow, it will... we suspect it will prompt a new conversation about the path forward, and we'll see where that goes."

Psaki's remarks came as more than 480 Democratic state legislators from all 50 states signed on to a letter (pdf) pleading for federal action to shield voting rights, warning: "We are out of options. We need your help."

"The world is watching," reads the letter, which was addressed to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders. "American democracy is in the balance. When future generations judge whether we rose to this pivotal moment in history, we hope you will be counted alongside us in the fight to preserve this experiment in self-governance."



The Senate is expected to vote Tuesday evening on a motion to proceed to debate on the For the People Act, which would establish federal standards for absentee voting, institute a national automatic voter registration system, strengthen donor disclosure requirements, and bar states from purging voter rolls.

Under current Senate rules, procedural motions are subject to the 60-vote legislative filibuster, meaning Democrats will need the support of at least 10 Republicans to advance the voting rights bill. Thus far, not one Republican has backed the For the People Act or a watered-down alternative that Manchin put forth last week.

As activists anticipate the outcome of Tuesday's vote and gear up for nationwide demonstrations, it remains unclear how Biden intends to respond to the GOP's likely filibuster of the For the People Act. Biden doesn't have any voting rights-related public events or speeches scheduled ahead of or immediately after Tuesday's vote, and the president has largely been quiet about the filibuster since he endorsed reforming the rule in mid-March.

"We need President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris talking about the threats to our democracy every single day until we pass the For the People Act to protect voting rights and get money out of politics. Period," Indivisible tweeted Monday.

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) echoed that message, writing, "Our democracy is in crisis and we need the president to act like it."

Ruling by Trump-appointed judge gives feds 'green light' to attack protesters: ACLU

The ACLU reacted with outrage—and warned of potentially major implications for the right to protest—after a Trump-appointed federal judge on Monday largely dismissed lawsuits accusing the former president and his attorney general of illegally authorizing a violent assault on peaceful demonstrators in the nation's capital last year.

Filed by the ACLU last June on behalf of Black Lives Matter D.C. and individual demonstrators, the suits alleged that Trump administration officials conspired to clear Lafayette Square of racial justice protesters to make way for then-President Donald Trump's infamous walk to nearby St. John's Episcopal Church. Critics denounced Trump's walk and subsequent threatening remarks in front of the church as a gross photo op amid nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich of Washington, D.C. argued in a 51-page ruling (pdf) Monday that the plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient evidence of a "conspiracy" among Trump administration officials to clear the square for the president's photo op in violation of protesters' constitutional rights.

As the Washington Post reported:

Friedrich acknowledged claims that Trump tweeted threats and encouragement of violence against protesters, and ordered [then-Attorney General William] Barr to take charge of the situation before Barr mobilized law enforcement and appeared at the square just before it was cleared.
The judge also said the square was cleared right before Trump, Barr, and [then-Defense Secretary Mark] Esper's walk to the church. But these events weren't enough to allow conspiracy claims to go forward without further, specific factual allegations, Friedrich wrote.

During oral arguments in the case last month, Friedrich signaled that even if it were demonstrated that the Trump administration violently dispersed the protesters to create a path for the president, she would accept the Biden Justice Department's argument that U.S. national security interests were served by the move.

"How do I get over the clear national security concern over the president's safety?" Friedrich asked. "It seems to me you have to clear the square before he [Trump] walks to the church. Why is that not reasonable?"

Scott Michelman, legal director of the ACLU's D.C. chapter, said in a statement that Friedrich's ruling "essentially gives the federal government a green light to use violence, including lethal force against demonstrators, as long as federal officials claim to be protecting national security."

"Under today's decision, Lafayette Square is now a Constitution-free zone when it comes to the actions of federal officials," Michelman continued. "Not only is this decision a stunning rejection of our constitutional values and protestors' First Amendment rights, but it effectively places federal officials above the law."

Last month, lawyers for the Biden Justice Department urged Friedrich to dismiss the lawsuits against Trump, Barr, and other former administration officials, arguing that they are immune from civil suits over the police actions in Lafayette Square, which included the use of chemical agents such as pepper balls.

While rejecting the lawsuits against federal officials, Friedrich did "allow lawsuits challenging continued restrictions of protester access to Lafayette Square and against local police agencies in Washington and Arlington County, Va., to proceed," the New York Times reported.

Michelman said Monday that the ACLU plans "to evaluate all our legal options to ensure that protestors cannot be wantonly attacked at the whim of a federal official."

"The blitzkrieg unleashed against civil rights demonstrators in Lafayette Square is a stain on our nation's commitment to the Constitution, and slamming the courthouse doors in the face of the demonstrators because the defendants are federal, rather than state or local officials, sends exactly the wrong message about what our country stands for," Michelman added. "Congress should plug this dangerous gap in our system of constitutional remedies by legislating that federal officers, no less than state and local ones, can be sued when they violate individuals' rights."

Sinema op-ed defending Senate filibuster slammed as 'delusional'

On the eve of Tuesday's vote to begin debate on the For the People Act, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona published an op-ed defending the archaic procedural rule that Senate Republicans are expected to wield to tank the popular voting rights legislation.

Headlined "We have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster," Sinema's Washington Post piece regurgitates the well-worn argument that eliminating the Senate's 60-vote threshold would backfire on Democrats by leaving Republicans with fewer legislative obstacles next time they're in power.

"My support for retaining the 60-vote threshold is not based on the importance of any particular policy. It is based on what is best for our democracy. The filibuster compels moderation and helps protect the country from wild swings between opposing policy poles," Sinema wrote. "To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to expand healthcare access or retirement benefits: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to later see that legislation replaced by legislation dividing Medicaid into block grants, slashing earned Social Security and Medicare benefits, or defunding women's reproductive health services?"

But as observers readily pointed out, the filibuster does not protect Medicaid and other spending programs given that they can be gutted through the budget reconciliation process, which is exempt from the filibuster and requires just a simple-majority vote.

In 2017, the GOP nearly succeeded in repealing the Affordable Care Act using budget reconciliation. That same year, Republicans also used a reconciliation bill to target Planned Parenthood.

However, the strict rules governing reconciliation prevent lawmakers from using the process to pass legislation that doesn't have a direct budgetary impact, such as a bill expanding voting rights. Progressives argue that by refusing to touch the legislative filibuster, Sinema and other conservative Democrats are hamstringing their own party's agenda while doing little to thwart the GOP's.

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) said Monday that Sinema and other filibuster defenders are effectively arguing that "we should let Republicans destroy democracy now because at some indeterminate time in the future they may try again."

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie characterized Sinema's op-ed as "unbelievably weak" and said its "assertions range from being demonstrably false to disingenuous to delusional."

"Sinema's argument amounts to an argument against the exercise of power at all since, if you use it, what happens when the other side does too?" Bouie added.

Writing for the Post earlier this year, Tré Easton of the Battle Born Collective argued that fear of what Republicans will do if the filibuster is eliminated "shirks the responsibility to be proactive."

"History has shown that progressive reforms are hard to undo once they are enacted," Easton wrote. "Regardless of whether they say they like big government, people of all political stripes seem to appreciate the things the federal government provides them. Progressive expansions of rights and the social safety net have proved resistant to repeal through the legislative process."

"History also shows us that by its very nature, the filibuster benefits conservatives far more than progressives," Easton added. "It is an inherently conservative tool: It makes it harder to achieve change. Conservatives can get most of what they want simply by blocking progress, and they can achieve many of the rollbacks of rights and regulations that they seek through the courts and other means. Progressives, on the other hand, require large-scale legislation to achieve their goals."


Sinema's latest defense of the filibuster came as she faced growing grassroots pressure to end her support for the 60-vote rule, which is standing in the way of not just the For the People Act but also the Equality Act, immigration reform, and other Democratic agenda items.

Earlier Monday, more than 140 LGBTQ+ Arizonans signed an open letter demanding that Sinema "join in the movement to end the filibuster."

"By casting the decisive vote to end the filibuster, you would open the flood gates of possibility to pass popular reforms supported by the majority of Americans. Among these transformative reforms, the Equality Act, which you cosponsored, will prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, federally funded programs, credit, and jury service," the letter reads. "We have a rare opportunity in this moment in history."

Ahead of Tuesday's expected procedural vote on the For the People Act, the advocacy group Fix Our Senate launched a seven-figure ad campaign pressing Senate Democrats to abolish the filibuster if the legislation fails to advance. If passed, the bill would neutralize hundreds of voter suppression bills that Republicans have introduced at the state level across the country.

"The choice for senators today is clear: It's either protecting Americans' voting rights and strengthening our democracy or preserving the Jim Crow filibuster," said Fix Our Senate spokesperson Eli Zupnick.

Under current Senate rules, even a motion to proceed to debate on legislation can be filibustered—a reality that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) alluded to in floor remarks previewing Tuesday's vote.

"Tomorrow, the Senate will take a vote on whether to start debate on legislation to protect Americans' voting rights," said Schumer. "It is not a vote on any particular policy. It is not a vote on this bill or that bill. It is a vote on whether the Senate should simply debate the issue about voting rights, the crucial issue of voting rights, in this country."

"Now, by all rights, we shouldn't have to debate voting rights on the floor of the United States Senate," Schumer added. "These rights should be sacrosanct. But the events of the last few months compel us to have this debate—now."

Criminal probe into DeJoy demanded over 'suspicious' GOP donations

An election watchdog organization on Monday demanded a state-level criminal probe into Postmaster General Louis DeJoy after research uncovered "suspicious" new details surrounding a straw donor scheme he allegedly orchestrated during his time as chief executive of the North Carolina-based firm New Breed Logistics.

While the FBI is already investigating the scandal-plagued postmaster general for potential violations of campaign finance laws, the advocacy group Common Cause North Carolina said that Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman should also open a criminal probe into DeJoy's conduct at New Breed Logistics, which he headed while simultaneously serving as a major fundraiser for Republican political candidates.

In a 20-page report (pdf) submitted to the North Carolina State Board of Elections on Monday, Common Cause alleges that "the pattern of campaign contributions from Louis DeJoy and New Breed employees to the gubernatorial campaigns of Pat McCrory follows the same pattern of other company owners who have been found guilty in North Carolina of funneling money through their employees to state candidates"—an illegal practice known as straw donations.

Prepared for Common Cause by campaign finance expert Bob Hall, the analysis builds on bombshell Washington Post reporting detailing former New Breed employees' allegations that they were "urged by DeJoy's aides or by the chief executive himself to write checks and attend fundraisers at his 15,000-square-foot gated mansion beside a Greensboro, N.C., country club."

"Employees familiar with New Breed's financial and payroll systems said DeJoy would instruct that bonus payments to staffers be boosted to help defray the cost of their contributions, an arrangement that would be unlawful," according to the Post.

Hall's analysis of campaign finance records shows that 60 New Breed employees pumped a combined $300,000 into the 2008 and 2012 gubernatorial campaigns of former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.

"After DeJoy and his wife gave their maximum to McCrory [in 2008], seven [New Breed] employees donated a combined $3,000 to the McCrory's campaign, all on the same day—October 23, 2008," the report notes. "For all seven, it was their first donation to a NC candidate."

Similarly questionable were the donations that dozens of New Breed employees sent to McCrory's campaign during his successful bid for governor in 2012. According to Hall's findings, 54 New Breed executives and three of their wives donated $143,130 to the McCrory campaign during the 2012 race.

"For 46 of the 54 employees," Hall notes, "it was their first reportable contribution to a North Carolina candidate."

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC, said in a statement Monday that "these new, detailed findings reveal an alarming and highly suspicious pattern of campaign donations by Louis DeJoy's employees while he led New Breed Logistics."

"We respectfully urge District Attorney Freeman to review these new findings and begin a full investigation into Mr. DeJoy's alleged political donation scheme," Phillips added. "These allegations should be thoroughly investigated and, if true, Mr. DeJoy must be held accountable."


In response to a complaint filed by Common Cause NC last September following the Post's reporting, Freeman said that "our review of what we believe to be pertinent, state campaign finance reports, did not disclose sufficient information to warrant a criminal investigation."

But Hall disagrees, writing in his memo Monday that a "careful review of contributions by DeJoy and New Breed employees to state candidates demonstrates a compelling need for state agencies, not just the FBI, to conduct a comprehensive criminal investigation of felony campaign finance violations involving hundreds of thousands of dollars to North Carolina campaigns."

While a possible FBI case against DeJoy—who was selected to lead the U.S. Postal Service in May 2020—could be constrained by a five-year federal statute of limitations for straw-donor schemes, North Carolina officials would not face such limits.

As Hall observed, "The use of company funds to make, reimburse or pay for a campaign contribution violates North Carolina General Statute 163-278.19(a), and making a contribution in the name of another person or funneling money into a campaign through another person violates NCGS 163-278.14(a)."

"In addition, NCGS 163-278.27(c) says that a business, organization or individual 'who intentionally violates G.S.163-278.14(a) or G.S.163-278.19(a) and the unlawful contributions total more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000) per election is guilty of a Class I felony,'" Hall notes. "There is no statute of limitation for prosecuting a Class I felony."

How the mainstream media fell for the Lafayette Square whitewash

The gassing of protesters at Washington's Lafayette Square in June 2020, by all appearances intended to clear the area for a photo op by then-President Trump, was witnessed in person by dozens of reporters and remotely by millions of television viewers. But a review by the inspector general (IG) of the Interior Department, the parent agency of the U.S. Park Service that administers the square, ostensibly clears the Park Service of gassing the crowd to accommodate Trump.

The following headlines are typical of the major media's reporting of the finding. USA Today says "Police did not clear protesters from Lafayette Park for Trump photo op, inspector general finds." CNN: "Watchdog report finds Park Police did not clear racial injustice protesters from Lafayette Park for Trump's visit to St. John's Church last June." ABC News: "Police did not clear Lafayette Square so Trump could hold 'Bible' photo op: Watchdog." Does this mean exoneration for Trump and the agencies dealing with the incident?

No, not even close. Nor could it demonstrate much of anything, given both the predetermined scope of the report in question as well as the gradual deterioration of agency IG operations in general over the years.

As a former career staff member for Congress, I was a major institutional "customer" of IG reports. Congress created the IGs in 1978; the intention was to have an independent watchdog in each department of the executive branch to expose waste fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.

While created with good intentions, I began to sense that the IGs had gradually succumbed to bureaucratic sclerosis and capture by their own departments. They became narrowly focused on whether the subject of their investigations adhered to established processes, while ignoring questions of the competence, judgment, or honesty. In short, the watchdog seemed toothless to me.

To test my impression, I asked Brian J. O'Malley, a retired government official who had the double benefit of working both for Congress, where he was a consumer of IG material, but also in the IG office of the Transportation Department, where he helped root out the waste and contractor fraud behind Boston's "Big Dig" tunnel project.

He noted that there is more than one category of IG report. The first is an audit conducted in accordance to Government Accountability Office (GAO) standards found in a volume called the Yellow Book. It is an extensively documented process that has cross-referenceable workpapers for every finding in the audit and those are scrutinized by an independent team of auditors for thoroughness and lack of bias.

The second is an inspection conducted in accordance with those GAO standards found in the so-called Gray Book. It is a faster procedure, providing a snapshot of the operational condition of the reviewed agency's status with respect to any given situation. There are work papers to validate findings but they are not as extensively scrutinized, although they are reviewed for lack of bias.

Then there is the case of the Special Review, such as that of the Lafayette incident: Review of U.S. Park Police Actions at Lafayette Park, Case No. OI-PI-20-0563-P. It is neither an audit nor an inspection. It is a review. There are no standards for reviews, no verification by an independent reviewer, and no review for bias. In fact, the review plainly states its extreme limitations. Here are some excerpts:

Our oversight obligations are focused on the DOI, and our authority to obtain documents and statements from non-DOI entities is more limited.

... [W]e interviewed more than 20 USPP and NPS officials involved in policing the protests in and around Lafayette Park on June 1, including then USPP Acting Chief of Police Gregory Monahan, the USPP incident commander, the USPP operations commander, and the USPP deputy operations commander. We also reviewed the USPP's administrative record, emails, text messages, and video footage from observation posts.

Finally, we reviewed U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) and USPP policies and procedures, open-source videos, media articles, and congressional testimony.

Therefore, the review was only of Interior Department personnel, the department's documents and apparently some media coverage. In a footnote in miniscule font size the review points out:

Because our review focused on the operational actions of law enforcement, we did not seek to interview protesters for this review.

The principal limitation, which was rather breathtaking, was described as follows:

Accordingly, we did not seek to interview Attorney General William Barr, White House personnel, Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officers, MPD [Washington Metropolitan Police] personnel, or Secret Service personnel regarding their independent decisions that did not involve the USPP.

Despite this complete lack of information from any of the other agencies involved, the IG review stated unequivocally that there was no evidence that the Park Police cleared Lafayette Park to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John's Church. Virtually the whole review rested on the purported issue of the Park Police clearing the area to allow the contractor to install fencing.

But the Park Police would have had no idea what the other agencies were doing and what their leaders were ordering:

Finally, we found that the USPP and the Secret Service did not use a shared radio channel to communicate, that the USPP primarily conveyed information orally to assisting law enforcement entities, that an assisting law enforcement entity arrived late and may not have received a full briefing on the rules of engagement, and that several law enforcement officers could not clearly hear the incident commander's dispersal warnings.

And another tiny footnote states that the Park Police was not even running the operation:

The USPP acting chief of police was in Lafayette Park on June 1 serving in his role as the chief of police, but he did not direct the unified command.

What is one to make of this report? O'Malley told me the following: "Like many efforts by inspectors general it seeks to deflect criticism of their own department by defining problems so that they lie outside the scope of their review. It clearly does not absolve anyone in the White House or then-Attorney General Barr from meddling in the situation as a political stunt. This report is a shameful, cover-your-ass effort to throw other agencies under the bus for all the disgraceful actions on that day. It has been exploited by the malefactors of that day to provide a fig leaf of phony exoneration."

Despite most of the media having been bamboozled, some journalists weren't having any of it. The Washington Post's Philip Bump analyzed the available video of the incident, and concluded that William Barr's talking with the site commanders on scene just prior to the clearance operation would certainly tend to discredit, if not altogether refute, the IG's review.

CNN's Jim Acosta, who was covering the White House at the time of the incident, was more unequivocal: "And I have to say, when I read through this report, it sounded as if this inspector general was auditioning to become the inspector general at Mar-A-Lago because this is almost a whitewash of what occurred on June First." Inevitably, Acosta was attacked in personal terms by perennial crank Glenn Greenwald, who conveniently forgot his prior belief that civil servants were an insidious Deep State seeking to bring down Trump. Now, he accused Acosta of "maligning the reputation of a well-respected career civil servant."

The slipshod IG review is highly significant for three reasons.

First, it is symptomatic of the systemic decline of both government capacity and government's role as a disinterested organ of public service. This decay been going on since at least the early 1980s, but the rot accelerated with frightening speed during the Trump presidency. The disastrous response to the COVID pandemic in 2020 was a flashing red light warning us that when competence and honesty decline, and when agencies are hollowed out, people get hurt.

Second, it is a sign that the U.S. news media never learned its lesson from its four-year brush with covering an authoritarian political party in power. It seems so eager to show everyone that it is "balanced" that it cannot even take the trouble to thoroughly read a document. A similar phenomenon has just recently occurred with the lab theory of the origin of coronavirus.

There is no credible evidence that the theory is true – yet. Just as the IG report "exonerated" Trump of a photo-op stunt, the media is all but declaring that the Trump administration's insistence that COVID came out of a Chinese lab "vindicates" them, although the administration had nearly a year to produce evidence and showed none.

Finally, we are now facing another scandal of huge proportions: the Trump administration's seizing the metadata of journalists, Democratic members of Congress, and their families. It hardly inspires confidence that after several months in office, Attorney General Merrick Garland did not at some point hold a press conference announcing the story and vowing that the heads of those responsible would roll. Instead, the New York Times broke the news.

It is likely that after some pressure from Congress, the Department of Justice will announce that it will investigate itself. But the prospect that the department's IG will produce a more credible report than that of the Interior Department just might be a triumph of hope over experience.

'Epic failure of humanity': Global displaced population hits all-time high

A report released Friday by the United Nations Refugee Agency finds that more than 82 million people across the globe were forcibly displaced by war, persecution, the climate crisis, and other factors by the end of 2020, a record high that one international aid group called "an epic failure of humanity."

The U.N.'s annual Global Trends in Forced Displacement (pdf) assessment estimates that girls and boys under the age of 18 account for 42% of the 82.4 million people who have fled their homes in search of safety and basic human dignity. Nearly a million children were born as refugees between 2018 and 2020, the report shows.

"Behind each number is a person forced from their home and a story of displacement, dispossession, and suffering. They merit our attention and support not just with humanitarian aid, but in finding solutions to their plight," said Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR). "The tragedy of so many children being born into exile should be reason enough to make far greater efforts to prevent and end conflict and violence."

Though the deadly coronavirus pandemic led countries around the world to close off their borders to refugees and asylum-seekers, many people still fled across national lines in 2020, the ninth consecutive year in which the number of forcibly displaced people has reached a record high.

According to the new U.N. report, 26.4 million people were living as refugees in 2020, and more than two-thirds of those who fled abroad came from just five countries: Syria (6.7 million), Venezuela (4 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million) and Myanmar (1.1 million).

The U.N. figures show that in addition to those who were forced by circumstance to leave their home countries, 48 million people were internally displaced by the end of last year, up from 45.7 million in 2019.

"Climate change is driving displacement and increasing the vulnerability of those already forced to flee," the report states. "Forcibly displaced and stateless people are on the front lines of the climate emergency. Many are living in climate 'hotspots' where they typically lack the resources to adapt to an increasingly inhospitable environment. The dynamics of poverty, food insecurity, climate change, conflict, and displacement are increasingly interconnected and mutually reinforcing, driving more and more people to search for safety and security."


Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement that "despite the staggering statistics, world leaders have been inept to resolve the greatest emergency of our generation."

"Far more people are on the move today than anytime during World War II, yet we say we live in an unprecedented era of global peacetime," Egeland added. "We need to rewrite tomorrow's history books to reflect today's reality, that we live in an unprecedented era of persecution and suffering."

Absent dramatic action from the international community to end conflicts, combat the climate crisis, and mitigate other major factors driving forced displacement, the U.N. report warns that "forecasts for 2021 are equally worrying, with some of the world's worst food crises—including in displacement-affected countries such as South Sudan, Syria, and the Central African Republic—at risk of turning into famine."

"The question is no longer if forced displacement will exceed 100 million people—but rather when," the report states. "Clearly, the need for preventing conflicts and ensuring that displaced people have access to solutions has never been more pressing than now."

How a bipartisan infrastructure plan 'would facilitate a Wall Street takeover'

Refusing to touch the 2017 GOP tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations, a bipartisan group of 21 senators is proposing a series of alternative infrastructure funding mechanisms that critics say amount to a thinly veiled scheme to privatize the nation's roads, bridges, and water systems.

In a two-page memo (pdf) outlining its yet-to-be-finalized infrastructure plan, the bipartisan group lists "public-private partnerships, private activity bonds, and asset recycling" as potential ways to finance the package, which calls for $579 billion in new spending over five years.

Asset recycling refers to the practice of leasing out or selling off public infrastructure to private corporations and using the proceeds to fund other projects—a policy that Australia has used widely and that former U.S. President Donald Trump proposed replicating in 2017.

As the U.S. research nonprofit In the Public Interest noted in a 2017 report (pdf), "the Australian asset recycling program ultimately crashed and burned, and the fund itself was formally ended in December 2016."

"Our own country's experience shows that transferring control of public infrastructure to private interests is fraught with problems," the brief continued. "One such example is the privatization of Chicago's parking meters. In 2009, Chicago signed a 75-year public-private partnership with a consortium of companies for the operation of the city's 36,000 parking meters. Although the city received $1.15 billion in the deal, Chicago drivers will pay the consortium at least $11.6 billion to park at meters over the life of the contract. The contact required Chicago to raise parking meter fees by 200 to 800%, depending on the area of the city, from 2009 to 2013."

In a statement issued Thursday as the details of the bipartisan proposal began to emerge, Mary Grant of advocacy group Food & Water Watch warned that the plan "would pile further burdens on communities struggling to recover from the Covid pandemic."

"It promotes privatization and so-called 'public-private partnerships' instead of making public investments in publicly-owned infrastructure," Grant said. "This package does not provide adequate funding to rebuild and repair our country's infrastructure; it is nothing more than an outrageously expensive way to borrow funds, with the ultimate bill paid back by households and local businesses in the form of higher rates."

"Communities across the country have been ripped off by public-private schemes that enrich corporations and Wall Street investors," Grant continued. "This deal is a disaster in the making, and it must be rejected."

Rianna Eckel, an organizer with Food & Water Watch, similarly cautioned that the bipartisan proposal "would facilitate a Wall Street takeover of public services like water—which would lead to higher rates, worse service, and job cuts."

Food & Water Watch estimated in a March report (pdf) that, on average, privately owned utilities charge households 59% more than local governments for drinking water service.


Led by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the bipartisan group is crafting its infrastructure plan as an alternative to President Joe Biden's original American Jobs proposal, which calls for over $2 trillion in new spending over eight years financed partially by raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

Morris Pearl, chair of the Patriotic Millionaires, said Thursday that by deeming any changes to the 2017 GOP tax law off limits, the bipartisan Senate group is showing that it's "more interested in having less Infrastructure investment in order to justify keeping in place a rigged tax code that favors corporations and the rich rather than actually coming up with a plan that solves the enormous challenges that our country faces."

"If the choice is between a good deal and a bipartisan deal, Democratic senators must choose the good deal," said Pearl. "They must prioritize doing what the American people are asking for, which is to raise taxes on the rich and corporations. Two-thirds of voters support raising taxes on corporations to pay for President Biden's infrastructure investment."

As the bipartisan group continues to hash out the details of its proposal behind closed doors, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Senate Democrats are considering a package that includes up to $6 trillion in infrastructure and safety-net spending.

On top of major investments in physical infrastructure and green energy, the $6 trillion plan would lower the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60 and expand the healthcare program's benefits to cover vision, hearing, and dental. The proposed expansion would be paid for by allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, which Sanders' office estimates would raise $450 billion in revenue over a decade.

"As chairman of the budget committee, I believe that now is the time to address the long-term crises facing working families," Sanders tweeted Thursday. "And, yes. We can pay for many of these proposals by demanding that the wealthy and large corporations start paying their fair share of taxes."

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