Newsdesk October 21, 2005

Press Group Files Brief

An organization that advocates freedom of the press is asking a federal court to accept an amicus brief. The brief highlights the dangers to journalistic freedoms that may be caused by trying two former pro-Israel lobbyists and one former Pentagon employee for communicating classified information.

Last week the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a request to a federal court in Alexandria, Va., requesting permission to file a friend of the court brief that would underline “the broad implications of the government’s use of the statute under which these defendants are charged.”

The group contends that accusing Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, the two former American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbyists, and former Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin of violating a rarely used section of the Espionage Act could create a precedent that would severely curtail the freedom of the press.

The three are charged with conspiracy to “communicate” national defense information “to any persons not entitled to receive it.” This broad language, applied to anyone who talks about classified information — regardless of intent or interlocutor — the organization argues, could “potentially eviscerate the primary function of journalism: to gather and publicize information of public concern — particularly where the most valuable information to the public is information that other people, such as the government, want to conceal.”

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at RCFP, told the Forward that amicus briefs are typically filed only to appellate courts. When filed to a first-instance court, as in this case, a request has to first be filed asking the court to accept the brief. In this case, Leslie said that the mere hearing of the case in court may encourage the government to broaden its use of the controversial statute and apply it to reporters, as well. He also said that the Bush administration seems to have launched a campaign to crack down on leaks, and it is using legal tools that may infringe on the rights of the news media.

Bus Driver’s Suit Settled

The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by bus driver Henry Asher, whose request to take off on the Sabbath and the High Holy Days had been denied.

The lawsuit had been filed in September 2004 on the driver’s behalf by the Justice Department, which claimed that the MTA was guilty of religious discrimination. Under the settlement agreement, Asher will receive $25,000 and the MTA will institute regulations to ensure that employees no longer are subject to religious discrimination.

In a statement issued last week in conjunction with the settlement, Bradley J. Schlozman, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said: “Public employees should not have to choose between their religious beliefs and their livelihood.”

Prior to the lawsuit, the MTA’s policy was that drivers were required to be available for work at any time for any shift. According to MTA spokesman Rick Jager, Asher complied with the policy when he was first hired but later requested that the transit authority accommodate his religious observance.

Jager said that the MTA’s new policy allows for employees to take up to 30 days of unpaid leave for religious observance, but they must wait before returning for a shift to open. Generally this will happen when “somebody quits or gets sick,” Jager said.

Fence Hailed as Model

Anti-immigration activists are hailing Israel’s West Bank security fence as a model as they lobby Congress to pass legislation that would fund the construction of similar structures along the 2,000-mile American-Mexican border.

Let Freedom Ring, a Pennsylvania group that advocates a wide-ranging conservative agenda, is calling on Congress to appropriate as much as $8 billion to erect an impermeable barrier. This is akin to the anti-terrorist fence that Israel is currently completing in the West Bank. The group has raised some $100,000 for television and newspaper advertisements. It also has launched a new Web site, www.weneedafence.com, which states that Israel’s West Bank security fence is “state-of-the-art in border security.”

The American conservative group argues that a fence such as Israel’s would serve both to stop the influx of illegal aliens and to minimize the risk of terrorists crossing the Mexican border. Israel constructed its fence with the goal of keeping out Palestinian terrorists. The Israeli barrier reduced cross-border terrorism dramatically, but it attracted much criticism internationally — including from the International Court of Justice in The Hague — for encroaching on Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

When the group first introduced its initiative, about two weeks ago, it was not received on Capitol Hill with much enthusiasm. The White House and Congress until last week seemed keen on advancing a guest-worker program to address illegal immigration.

But on October 14 The Washington Times published an interview with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, in which he indicated his intention to address border security first. The interview came after Frist took a helicopter tour of 300 miles along the American-Mexican border.

October 18, when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and others testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on immigration reform, there seemed to be a consensus among committee members that such a reform must combine tighter arrangements on the border with labor-related measures.

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Newsdesk October 21, 2005

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