Archive for the 'Government' Category

Minnesota Friends Face Criminal Charges for Attempting to Join ISIS

Six Minnesota men were charged on April 20th for conspiring to provide and attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The men, ranging in age from 19-21, drove from Minneapolis to San Diego in hopes of reaching Mexico to fly to Syria.

ISISThe multiple arrests were a victory for the FBI after a 10-month long investigation of ISIS recruitment in Minneapolis.

In addition to the six men, another man was caught trying to join ISIS but agreed to work with authorities and stop all efforts in reaching Syria. He worked as an informant, receiving about $13,000 for helping the FBI catch the recruits. The man handed over secretly recorded conversations and meetings of the six other men to authorities.

The men appeared in court Thursday the 23rd, greeted by support from their families and community. But, anger from the community towards the FBI was potent at the courthouse. The community was furious that the informant handed over most of the evidence the FBI needed to arrest them. They believed without this information, the FBI would not have any evidence to charge the men.

An FBI agent testified that the evidence the informant provided proved the men persisted in trying to reach Syria to join ISIS even after they had been stopped from boarding planes en route to the country.

It is common knowledge ISIS is a threatening foreign terrorist group. Terrorist activity and engagement in terrorism by ISIS can easily be proved to the court. Because of these three factors, the six men are facing either a fine, imprisonment not over 15 years, or both for attempting to help a known foreign terrorist organization.

How Will the Germanwings Crash Change Airline Pilot Regulations?

Andreas Lubitz, 27, is suspected of deliberately crashing Flight 4U9525 into the French Alps on March 24th. He killed himself, along with the 149 crew members and passengers on board. The crash is suspected to be a suicide mission.

germanwings airlineWhat does this mean for the relationship between mental health confidentiality and the safety for airline passengers?

History of Pilot Suicide Attempts

Between 2003 and 2012, eight of the 2,759 fatal aircraft crashes were suicide driven.

In 1994, a FedEx cargo jet was deliberately crashed by a disgruntled pilot. And in 1987, a crew member shot two pilots dead on PSA Flight 1771 in an assumed suicide driven crash as well.

Both of these incidences resulted in new procedures for airline pilots. Because of these crashes, they are now required to go through the same security measures as passengers.

Current Protocol Concerning Pilots’ Mental Health

Currently in the U.S., pilots are required to renew their medical certificate once a year if they are under 40, and every six months if they are above. Psychological tests, however, are not required. Pilots are expected to disclose their mental health condition, or come to a doctor with concerns of mental health issues.

In Germany, psychological tests are part of the annual medical exam. But access to medical records are only available to aeromedical examiners, not airlines themselves.

Lufthansa, Germanwing’s parent company, requires psychological assessment of the pilots who work for the airline. Despite confidentiality laws, doctors and nurses are required under law to report any sign of behavior that can be deemed as threatening to public safety. But, it is very hard to diagnose a pilot with a mental illness when it is up to the pilot themselves to disclose this information.

Changes Being Made

German lawmaker Dirk Fischer, is demanding that airlines have access to pilots’ medical records.

In the U.S., it is required that two crew members be present in the cockpit at all times. Many other countries do not have this same requirement. Because of the Germanwings crash, airlines such as Norwegian Air Shuttle, Britain’s EasyJet, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, and Air Berlin all changed their policies to match the one of the U.S.

Who Will Be Held Liable for the Crash?

Most likely, a civil liability lawsuit with ensue, and Lufthansa will be held responsible. Article 21 of the Montreal Convention outlines that the airline is “strictly liable” for damages up to $113,100 Special Drawing Rights. Beyond this amount, Montreal also states that an airline is liable for any further damages as long as the plaintiff can prove they are responsible.

If the airline can prove that “the damage was not due to the negligence or other wrongful act or omission of the carrier or its servants or agents” or that “such damage was solely due to the negligence or other wrongful act or omission of a third party” they may not be held liable. But in this case, the probability Lufthansa will not be held liable is extremely low.

How Indiana’s Religious Freedom Act Will Backfire

I’m glad Governor Mike Pence signed Indiana’s Religious Freedom Act (RFA). The law is intended to allow businesses to discriminate against homosexuals. However, the RFA’s text is so broad the RFA could backfire on the conservatives passing the act.

Religious Objections-ProtestThe RFA actually doesn’t mention homosexuality or sexual orientation anywhere in its text. Instead, the RFA states that governments cannot impose any law that would substantially burden a person’s religious exercise without a compelling government interest. In English, the government cannot force a person to obey a law if that law would place a heavy burden on that person’s religious practice unless the government can show it has a very good reason for enforcing that law. Note that the RFA counts businesses as people.

Businesses that want to discriminate against homosexuals may do so if: 1) The business has a religious belief against homosexuals, 2) The government cannot give a very good reason for why it wants to force that business to violate its religious beliefs, and 3) The government cannot show that the violation of the business’s religious beliefs is the least restrict means of enforcing the law. The real twist is that the RFA can be invoked as a defense against a private lawsuit.

For example, a florist operates her flower shop as a sole proprietor. The florist refuses to sell flowers to two men who are getting married because the florist believes the Bible prohibits same-sex marriage. The couple sues the florist for discrimination. The florist can invoke the RFA and argue that the court cannot force her to serve the couple because it would be a violation of her religious beliefs.

The RFA Will Backfire Enormously

The RFA is written broadly so that a court wouldn’t void a law based on discrimination against homosexuals. Although the RFA avoids that problem, writing the law broadly means that other people can use the law for unintended purposes. After the Supreme Court ruled Hobby Lobby was exempt from Obamacare, Satanists attempted to exempt abortions from informed consent laws based on their religious beliefs. The same idea could be used to twist the RFA so that the conservatives who passed the RFA will come to despise the very law they enacted.

The ideas are endless. A restaurant could refuse to serve gun owners because the restaurant’s religious pacifism prevents it from serving gun owners. High school and university libraries could refuse to handout creationist textbooks because such textbooks violate the librarian’s belief in evolution (evolution is not based on religion, but creationists don’t recognize the distinction). Abortion clinics could serve women and ignore all criminal statutes against abortion by asserting the clinic has a religious belief that fetuses aren’t people.

Many people are currently protesting the enactment of the Religious Freedom Act. Governor Pence and state legislators probably won’t overturn the RFA, even if the law would cost the state millions of dollars from large organizations boycotting Indiana. However, the best way to protest the RFA is to use it in a way Governor Pence and other Republicans won’t expect the law to be used.

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Oklahoma’s Fraternity Scandal and the First Amendment

A recent video of members of the University Of Oklahoma fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chanting racial slurs has recently exploded on the media throughout the country. The chants were not only undisputedly racist, but especially violent in nature. Specifically they chanted “There will never be a ni**** SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me.”

oklahoma racism scandalThe University of Oklahoma promptly expelled both students who appeared to be leading the chant in the video. Parker Rice, a 19 year old freshman coming right from Jesuit College Preparatory School was the leader of the chant. Another student, Levi Pettit, was also expelled. Both families have apologized profusely. However, Rice is the only involved student who personally apologized.

Were the Students Protected by the First Amendment?

As shocking as this story is, there are several First Amendment Rights that come into question. Were these boys exercising their First Amendment right to free speech? And if so, was the speech protected and therefore not subjected to any legal action, including expulsion from a public university?

A potential lawsuit has been threatened by SAE against the University of Oklahoma for expelling the students. SAE contends that the two students’ immediate expulsion “runs contrary to due process” and that the university has no right to censor speech, despite its hateful content. Other organizations have joined the bandwagon to “protect” the students’ First Amendment rights, including The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is a civil liberties nonprofit. This organization has stated that, as a public university, the University of Oklahoma has no right to punish students solely because of offensive speech.

The Supreme Court has held that “advocacy of the use of force” is unprotected when it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and is “likely to incite or produce such action.” However, if it does not meet this test, the speech is protected under the First Amendment. For example, the Supreme Court struck down a criminal conviction of the white supremacy group, the Ku Klux Klan, for “advocating … violence … as a means of accomplishing political reform” because their statements at a rally did not express an immediate, or imminent intent to do violence. One could argue the same for the SAE incident which occurred on a bus full of only SAE kids who mostly shared the same views. Additionally, the factors which would be taken into consideration by a court, when deciding whether the speech was intended to incite violence, are that the video was only seconds long and privately recorded. The ruling essentially does not criminalize “mere advocacy.”

Hate speech is actually protected by the Constitution despite being offensive. If the speech is chanted in a private space, as in this incident, amongst people of similar views, it is protected. However, if directed toward African Americans, then if it was extreme enough to incite violence or imminent lawless action, then there would be no constitutional protection. However, the view of courts that have considered campus speech codes and other campus speech restrictions to be subject to first amendment protections. This is also true for fraternity speech, racist or not.

Unfortunately, the critics of the expulsion are legally correct. The students did have a right to free speech in the context in which they expressed it and, although there is an exception for “inciting violence” according to the legal standard, it likely would not apply to this busload of ignorant, drunk, privileged, white college students. Therefore, the public university likely did not have the legal right to expel them. It cannot punish the fraternity members solely for the content of their expression. With that said, both students would have be wise to leave on their own.

Will Racism Ever Stop Plaguing America?

America likes to think as a whole that we are past racism because overt acts such as these are abhorred by the majority. However, this story clearly shows that racism is still present in our society.

I have noticed that in the last few days the Oklahoma story has digressed from the racist video portrayal to the story of the poor frat boys whose lives are ruined. The media will always frame things the way they choose, which is often influenced by the pressure of institutions. But the community’s voice should always remain on point. In this case, it should be emphasized that the student’s actions were clearly wrong and highly offensive, regardless of whether or not First Amendment protections apply.

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Obama Proposes Relaxing Bankruptcy Restrictions for Student Debt

For more than a decade, bankruptcy was not really an option for student debt. Back in 1998, government loans to students were rendered non-dischargeable unless paying off the loans would be a severe hardship for the student. In 2005, private student loans were also rendered non-dischargeable absent a severe hardship. In 2015, President Obama has decided to make student loans the last major policy change of his presidency.

student loan debt bankruptcyLast week, the White House rolled out a plan called “A Student Aid Bill of Rights.” The bill has four parts: (1) a state-of-the-art complaint system to ensure quality service and accountability for the Department of Education, its contractors, and colleges, (2) a series of steps to help students responsibly repay their loans including help setting affordable monthly payments, (3) creation of affordable repayment plans based on student debt trends, and (4) every borrower has the right to quality customer service, reliable information, and fair treatment, even if they struggle to repay their loans. 

The White House’s “bill of rights” mostly talks about consumer protection for repayment of debts. The language of the proposed student bill of rights mirrors the stated goals of mortgage reform after the 2008 housing crisis. Mortgage reform focused on bank honesty and mortgage accuracy rather than homeowner forgiveness. Congress is also in the hands of the Republican Party and there’s no way on earth that the Republicans would simply forgive a majority of student debt. Assuming President Obama is actually serious about passing student loan reform and not just trying to frame the debate for the 2016 elections, than loan repayment has to be the agenda.

I highly doubt that making student loans dischargeable through bankruptcy would actually result in more student loans being discharged. The reason is simple and it’s not merely politics: the federal government holds 90% of all student loans, which amounts to $1 trillion of the $1.2 trillion dollar student debt in the United States! Since $1 trillion is too much money even for Washington D.C. to throw away, the goal of all this student loan reform must be loan repayment rather than loan forgiveness.

Bankruptcy Helps Both Creditors and Debtors

So how would discharging student loans help students repay student loans? Since the current restrictions on student loan discharge are rather harsh, few student loan debtors file for bankruptcy. Fewer than 1,000 people every year try to discharge their loans through bankruptcy.

This is unfortunate because bankruptcy is not solely for debtors. Don’t get me wrong, the main purpose of bankruptcy is to give honest debtors a fresh start. However, bankruptcy judges don’t discharge debts for free. Debtors either have to sell their assets or restructure their debts. Either way, debtors have to repay as much of their debt as they can afford before the bankruptcy court will discharge their debts.

In other words, some creditors might actually get paid during bankruptcy. Many people believe that a debtor repays all their debts or the debtor files for bankruptcy and pays nothing. The reality is that if a debtor is struggling to repay loans, the creditors might not be repaid even if the debtor doesn’t file for bankruptcy. It’s a better deal for creditors to receive half of what they are owed in bankruptcy rather than receive nothing outside of bankruptcy.

Making student loans dischargeable through bankruptcy probably wouldn’t automatically result in more student loans being discharged. The best way to guarantee that student debts aren’t simply erased without repayment is to give student loan creditors a higher priority in creditor repayment. If student loan creditors are first in line, than student loan creditors will be repaid before the debtor’s assets or income runs out.

Even if student loan creditors aren’t given a high priority in repayment, student loan creditors might still get repaid. Bankruptcy is expensive for everybody involved. Bankruptcy courts, like must civil courts, would prefer that cases be settled before they get to the court room. Since student loans were non-dischargeable, student loan creditors had very little incentive to actually talk with debtors other than ask for the money owed.

If student loans were dischargeable, the federal government might actually have to talk to, and negotiate with, student debtors. If private banks are required to negotiate with debtors about their debt, we should expect the federal government to do the same.

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