After fifteen years in an apparent coma, earlier this year the FCC woke up to the fact that ISPs were effectively paying states to pass laws focused entirely on protecting uncompetitive, regional broadband duopolies. More specifically, they've been pushing legislation that prohibits towns and cities from improving their own broadband infrastructure -- or in some cases partnering with utilities or private companies -- even in areas local incumbents refused to upgrade. It's pure protectionism, and roughly twenty states have passed such ISP-written laws nationwide.
While it received less press attention because it happened on the same day as the net neutrality vote, back in February the FCC voted to start pre-empting some of these state laws because they run contrary to the FCC's Congressionally-mandated mission of improving broadband access to all (not to mention, common sense). This, not too surprisingly, riled up all of the telecom companies' paid loyal supporters in Congress, who, like Marsha Blackburn, immediately started whining and pretending this was a states' rights issue (you'll note that letting your local incumbent cable and phone company literally write state law is perfectly fine, however).
In March, the state of Tennessee sued the FCC, again framing the state's decision to cozy up to telecom giants as a states' rights issue, and claiming the FCC violated federal law and overstepped its authority. Tennessee state law, pushed for by AT&T, has stopped Chattanooga-based EPB from expanding broadband services into additional areas. The FCC's attempt to thwart this god-given protectionist effort, Tennessee claimed this week in a new court filing, violates Tennesee's "inviolable right to self-governance":
"In a brief filed Friday in a federal appeals court, Tennessee argued that states have an "inviolable right to self-governance," which means that a state may delegate powers to its political subdivisions—i.e. cities and towns—as it sees fit..."Far from being a simple matter of preemption, as the FCC claims, this intervention between the State and its subordinate entities is a manifest infringement on State sovereignty," Tennessee's lawyers wrote Friday.
In other words, Tennessee argues, it's completely within its right to let AT&T write shitty telecom law that ensures Tennessee remains a broadband backwater, and the federal government has no standing to intervene in this noble effort. In contrast, the FCC has argued that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 directs the FCC to take action to remove barriers to broadband investment, which is precisely what AT&T Tennessee's law is. Tennessee's motivation here is to ensure they can keep gobbling up AT&T and Comcast campaign contributions without federal interference. The FCC's motivation here (contrary to years' past), is to actually bring better, cheaper broadband to more people.
The courts could rule either way, but the FCC will get its chance to respond to Tennessee in a filing expected by November 5. Meanwhile, Tennessee residents can rest easy knowing their taxpayer dollars are not only being used to prop up AT&T's crappy, stagnant broadband empire -- but to thwart efforts to actually bring broadband competition and lower prices to the state.
Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission voted to ease the way for cities to become Internet service providers. So-called municipal broadband is already a reality in a few towns, often providing Internet access and faster service to rural communities that cable companies don't serve.
The cable and telecommunications industry have long lobbied against city-run broadband, arguing that taxpayer money should not fund potential competitors to private companies.
The telecom companies have what may seem like an unlikely ally: states. Roughly 20 states have restrictions against municipal broadband.
And the attorneys general in North Carolina and Tennessee have recently filed lawsuits in an attempt to overrule the FCC and block towns in these states from expanding publicly funded Internet service.
North Carolina's attorney general argued in a suit filed in May that the "FCC unlawfully inserted itself between the State and the State's political subdivisions." Tennessee's attorney general filed a similar suit in March.
Tennessee has hired one of the country's largest telecom lobbying and law firms, Wiley Rein, to represent the state in its suit. The firm, founded by a former FCC chairman, has represented AT&T, Verizon and Qwest, among others.
James Tierney, director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School, said it is not unusual for attorneys general to seek outside counsel for specialized cases that they view as a priority.
Asked about the suit, the Tennessee attorney general's office told ProPublica, "This is a question of the state's sovereign ability to define the role of its local governmental units." North Carolina Attorney General's office said in a statement that the "legal defense of state laws by the Attorney General's office is a statutory requirement."
North Carolina is no exception. The state's Attorney General Roy Cooper received roughly $35,000 from the telecommunications industry in his 2012 run for office. Only the state's retail industry gave more.
If the court upholds the FCC's authority to preempt restrictions in North Carolina and Tennessee, it may embolden other cities to file petitions with the agency, according to lawyer Jim Baller, who represents Wilson and the Chattanooga Electric Power Board. "A victory by the FCC would be a very welcome result for many communities across America," said Baller.
For some residents in and outside of Chattanooga, clearing the way to city-run broadband would mean the sort of faster Internet access that others might take for granted.
For 12 years, Eva VanHook, 39, of Georgetown, Tennessee, lived with a satellite broadband connection so slow that she'd read a book while waiting for a web page to load. In order for her son to access online materials for his school assignments, she'd drive him 12 miles to their church parking lot, where he could access faster WiFi.
Charter, the local Internet service provider, declined several requests by her husband to build lines out to her home. Only last month did Charter connect her home to the Internet. "Even the possibility to jump on [the local utility's] gigabit network would blow our minds right now," VanHook said. "There is nothing faster than Chattanooga. Just through meeting them and hearing them speak and having them understand what's going on, that's the kind of place I want to do business."
As we've covered repeatedly, AT&T's busy backing away from countless DSL markets it doesn't want to upgrade, promising states that if they gut all consumer protections, those states will magically be awash in numerous broadband options. Of course what AT&T's actually doing is gutting DSL and traditional phone service, then shoving those users toward significantly more expensive wireless service -- which may or may not actually be available, and usually isn't a full substitute. At the same time, it's going state to state pushing protectionist laws that prevent towns and cities from improving their own networks, whether that's through building their own broadband networks, or partnering with a private company to do so.
It's a situation where AT&T truly gets to have its cake and eat it too. AT&T won't provide quality service, but it wants state protection ensuring that nobody can either -- just in case any of these efforts brush up against the company's business interests sometime down the road.
As we've discussed, the FCC has finally started taking aim at these protectionist broadband laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. Tennessee has already filed suit against the FCC for trampling "states rights," though the fact AT&T is literally writing stating law that tramples these same rights isn't seen as much of a problem. While the FCC works to try and gut these protectionist laws, there are a few bills circulating in the Tennessee legislature (like HB 152) that would allow these municipal broadband operations to extend outside of their current footprints without the FCC having to get involved.
AT&T unsurprisingly opposes the proposal, and has played a role in killing similar proposals in three straight legislative sessions. With this latest fight, AT&T has been e-mailing its employees, telling them to oppose the proposals if they know what's good for them:
"Government should not compete against the private sector, which has a proven history of funding, building, operating and upgrading broadband networks," she said in the emailed statement. "Rather than delivering more broadband, we believe that this policy will discourage the private sector investment that has delivered the world-class broadband infrastructure American consumers deserve and enjoy today."
Of course, the only thing AT&T has "proven" is that it will go to any lengths to project its uncompetitive fiefdom from outside competition. AT&T has spent years in Tennessee (and many other states) refusing to seriously upgrade broadband infrastructure, but doing its very best to ensure nobody else can either. Just ask the numerous Tennessee residents who filed their complaint with the FCC in support of the agency's push to dismantle protectionist law:
"For the past 15 years, Joyce and other people in her community have requested better service from AT&T. They were told repeatedly it would be 3 months, 6 months, 9 months until they would get upgrades but it never happened. They finally decided to look for connectivity elsewhere. Joyce and her neighbors approached their electric provider, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, in the hopes that they could work with (Chattanooga's municipal utility broadband company) EPB to bring services to the area. Volunteer and EPB had already discussed the possibility, but when the state law was passed that prevented EPB from expanding, the efforts to collaborate cooled."
AT&T's quick to claim it isn't blocking municipal broadband, because the bills it's pushing (usually based on draft legislation by ALEC in turn written by AT&T lawyers) do allow these operations to expand -- but only if they target markets that aren't "served" by existing providers. Of course, the bills then include an absurdly generous definition of what constitutes a community being "served," whether that's just one DSL line in an entire zip code, or the inclusion of pricey and capped wireless or satellite broadband services. AT&T President Joelle Phillips hides behind this logic when she tells people AT&T isn't against municipal broadband:
"Phillips said AT&T is not opposed to municipal networks, but government-owned providers should be limited to areas where broadband service from the private sector is unavailable or is not likely to be available in "a reasonable time frame." The proposed bill "allows for unfettered deployment of these publicly funded networks," she said."
A better idea would be for AT&T to either offer broadband services that don't suck, or get the hell out of the way. Millions of AT&T customers in Tennessee (and elsewhere) pay an arm and a leg for slow DSL lines with 150 GB usage caps, thanks to the now all-too-familiar lack of broadband competition seen across vast swaths of the country. Allowing towns and cities to improve things would ruin AT&T's ambitious plan to bathe those users in price hikes or apathy, or shovel these neglected customers toward hugely expensive and capped LTE service plans.
As we've noted many times in the past, the entertainment industry likes to take a multi-pronged approach to its quixotic efforts to "stop piracy" (which could be much better dealt with by simply giving the public more of what they want). Working on federal copyright law to continually expand it is one main strategy, but there are a lot of others as well, including pressuring private companies to voluntarily censor content, getting international trade agreements to force laws to change and... getting random state laws to force through big changes quietly. This last strategy has come into focus lately, especially with the rise of so-called "true origin" bills, that are almost certainly unconstitutional, but are rapidly popping up in a variety of states. This is actually a replay of an old strategy. I remember similar "true origin" efforts being pushed about a decade ago, and I'd thought they'd completely died out... but they're back.
The way they work is pretty simple: they outlaw anonymity on the internet if your website distributes any kind of audiovisual work. The point of this is twofold: one, for those who "register" and reveal their name and address, it makes it easier for the RIAAs and MPAAs of the world to sue a site for copyright infringement. And, for those who don't reveal their names, the RIAA and MPAA can ask the states to prosecute the site owners for failing to reveal their names.
A few weeks ago, we wrote about Florida's proposed law, which would require any website that hosts audio or video to reveal their name and address. This could have disastrous consequences for whistleblowers or anonymous critics. In the US, the Supreme Court has long recognized the importance of protecting anonymity as a part of the First Amendment, but this bill does away with that completely, just because the movie and music industries think it's necessary to stop piracy (even though it won't do that). Unfortunately, it appears that despite widespread criticism, the Florida bill is expected to move forward this week. If you happen to live in Florida, the EFF has set up a tool to help you alert your elected representatives to why such a bill is a terrible and unconstitutional idea.
But... it's not just Florida. One year ago, Tennessee enacted a similar bill, called the "True Origin of Goods Act" which is nearly identical to the Florida bill. And just last month, here in California, Assemblymember Ian Calderon (who has positioned himself as friendly to technology) introduced a similar bill. The California bill is at least somewhat more limited than the others in that it appears to focus mostly on physical copies that are offered for "sale" or "rental" -- but it at least raises questions about anonymity rights, and opens the door to future adjustments to "match" this law to internet displays of content.
The efforts here are all basically the same: quietly use state laws to undermine anonymity in an effort to help the RIAAs and MPAAs of the world try to track down the owners of websites they don't like. Whether or not you agree with that idea, the fact that to accomplish that (somewhat pointless) goal would undermine basic First Amendment concepts like anonymity and the ability to speak freely, doesn't seem to be of much concern to the supporters of these bills.
It's the same old story we've seen before with SOPA and other bills: the copyright industry doesn't seem to care in the slightest about collateral damage from its quixotic effort to stop piracy, rather than to provide the public with better offerings. And, of course, copyright is supposed to be an issue for federal law, not state law, and these efforts are ways that the copyright industry is trying to backdoor in systems to undermine free speech in yet another weak attempt to accomplish a singular and pointless goal.
Apparently the state of Tennessee really doesn't want its citizens to have good, competitive broadband. While the FCC's net neutrality rules keep getting all the attention, as we've discussed, in the long run it may be a bigger deal that the FCC (the same day it released the net neutrality rules) also started dismantling protectionist state laws that block municipal broadband. Those laws -- almost all of which were written directly by big broadband players afraid of competition -- make it close to impossible for local municipalities to decide that they're going to set up true competitors. The FCC preempted two such state laws, including in Tennessee, where one super successful municipal broadband project, in Chattanooga, wanted to expand to other nearby places. However, Tennessee's law blocked this.
We already noted that Rep. Marsha Blackburn was trying to pass legislation that would block the FCC's efforts here, but the state of Tennessee has taken it up a notch and sued the FCC over the rules. You will notice that the arguments used by the state of Tennessee are almost verbatim identical to the lawsuits we wrote about yesterday, challenging the FCC's net neutrality rules:
The State of Tennessee, as a sovereign and a party to the proceeding below, is aggrieved and seeks relief on the grounds that the Order: (1) is contrary to the United States Constitution; (2) is in excess of the Commission's authority; (3) is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion within the meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act; and (4) is otherwise contrary to law.
Yes, this is almost word-for-word identical to the claims made about the net neutrality rules and is basically the standard language to challenge any FCC ruling.
But here's the larger question: if you're a resident of Tennessee who likes having fast, affordable, competitive broadband, are you happy about your tax dollars being used to sue the FCC in an effort to uphold a law written by the big broadband players, focused on blocking such competition? It seems like the current Tennessee Attorney General, Herbert Slatery, has painted a giant target on his back for a challenger who actually wants to support the public in Tennessee.
Frankly, it was only a matter a time before this came to be. Two years or so ago, Mike wrote a piece about a Supreme Court ruling that gave the go-ahead to the state of Virginia to discriminate in its response to FOIA requests based on state residency. The state law that allowed Virginia to flatly refuse to comply with transparency requests from non-state residents was curious as a matter of good governance and was heralded by some, including Mike, as being a potential roadblock to national media, especially new media, to reporting on the goings on in the many states of our blessed union. The internet and new media, as perhaps should have been obvious, have their ways of routing around all this silliness.
Here to show how it's done is Deadspin, who filed an FOIA request in Tennessee, which has similar discriminatory FOIA policies, for emails between the University of Tennessee and Nike. This all stemmed from a rather banal situation going on at the school in which most of the women's teams are being rebranded from "Lady Vols" to simply "Volunteers" like the men's teams. This change in branding curiously came at the same time the school dropped its partnership with Adidas and switched to Nike, so Deadspin wanted to find out if there was some kind of influence being wielded by Nike over female athletic programs at a public university. So they filed for the FOIA request.
It was soon followed by a rejection letter ... because I'm not a Tennessee resident. As it stands, Tennessee's state laws only give the right to review records to "any citizen of this state." I am not a citizen of the state, and therefore they can tell me (and whoever else doesn't live in Tennessee, which includes everyone who works at Deadspin) to bugger off. Is this legal? Apparently so.
There's only one word for describing this way of thinking: garbage. Why don't they just put a sign at the Tennessee border saying, "Nothing to see here, please turn around"? Or just change the name of the Tennessee Open Records Act to the Tennessee Kinda-Sorta-Maybe-If-We-Like-You Records Act? Of just amend the text of the law to read, "Nah, fuck you"? Functionally, this just seems like a fantastic tool for ensuring national media can only give you glowing coverage—any documented verification is impossible, unless they want to give it to you.
That sentiment of frustration has been shared by numerous national blogs and media, including this one, if mildly so, several years back. It's a sense of the game being over if you don't happen to be a resident of the state in question. This, as it should be obvious, violates the spirit of the FOIA as a general tool for transparency, but what can you do? The Supreme Court ruled form on high, right?
Of course not. If new media should be linked to citizen journalism and blogs in particular embrace their readerships and communities as information sources, this is a non-problem. Deadspin sees it similarly in a post entitled "Tennessee Won't Give Us Nike's Emails; Maybe They'll Give Them To You."
But, hey, we've got readers everywhere, right? So I'm asking all of you, residents of Tennessee, to submit a public records request for me, if you don't mind. I'm putting a copy of my entire public records request below. Or, hey, come up with your own version if you've got a better idea for one. If you hear back from Tennessee, please let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's a wondeful tactic, and one completely in line with the idea of new media and citizen journalism, not to mention community participation amongst the readership. Too bad the University of Tennessee is apparently looking to play extremely dumb with the crowdsourced requests.
Everybody got the exact same answer: a copy of the Nike branding audit and nothing else. Not a single email. Not one text message. Not even a lonely memo, draft, or letter... a return that ignores what we asked for and goes against what logic suggests is the mountain of paperwork generated when a billion-dollar university system interacts with a billion-dollar company. There are only two ways this is possible:
1. Nike intentionally conducted all business with Tennessee only over the phone or in person, specifically to keep everything out of the public record.
2. The University of Tennessee is telling us to go fuck ourselves.
The wonderful part about the school attempting to route around these valid requests this way is that even by winning, the university still loses. Now there's zero doubt something shady is going on here. Either the school is refusing to comply with an FOIA request, or it is hiding its dealings in places it thinks the light of day will never shine. Either way, interest is only piqued further, rather than being sated.
While net neutrality justifiably received a ton of press attention last week, we were quick to point out that the FCC's other major decision -- to start attacking protectionist state broadband laws -- may just be a bigger deal. These twenty or so laws, as we've explored in detail, are written and lobbied for by incumbent ISPs and prohibit towns and cities from deciding for themselves what they should be able to do regarding local telecom infrastructure. If you realize that neutrality violations are just a symptom of a lack of competition, the FCC's decision to start dismantling the onerous parts of these laws strikes much deeper at the root of the problem.
Make no mistake: these laws are the worst sort of protectionism. And despite ISP attempts to make this a partisan issue, most municipal broadband deployments are being approved by Republican voters in Conservative areas. Similarly, Democrats and Republicans alike realize that letting AT&T or Comcast write a law that tells you what you can or can't do (and in some cases even eliminates eminent domain rights) only benefits AT&T and Comcast. Municipal broadband is an organic, community reaction to the telecom market failure they're "enjoying" on a daily basis.
That's why it's been amusing to see Marsha Blackburn rushing to the defense of the ISPs and these bills, breathlessly trying to argue that she's just terribly, terribly concerned about states' rights. Almost immediately after the FCC's vote to limit the reach of such laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, Blackburn and Senator Thom Tillis introduced the "States' Rights Municipal Broadband Act of 2015 (pdf)," which would amend the Telecommunications Act to strip back FCC authority over states when it comes to timely broadband deployment.
Both Blackburn's and Tillis' states have passed laws that have prevented municipal broadband deployments from expanding and encroaching on the territories of companies like AT&T, CenturyLink, Time Warner Cable and Comcast. EPB Broadband (in Tennessee) and Greenlight (in North Carolina) petitioned the FCC for help in removing state-level barriers to deployment after a decade of FCC apathy to the issue. According to a statement on Blackburn's website, she's not blindly protecting her state's broadband duopoly, she's protecting locals from the FCC's vile assault on their freedom:
"I’m pleased to be working with Senator Tillis on this important issue. As former state legislators, we strongly believe in States’ rights and will fight the FCC’s liberal agenda. Chairman Wheeler’s regulatory appetite appears to know no bounds and is seeping dangerously into the lives of Americans. It is time for Congress to assert itself and protect States once again from unelected Washington bureaucrats."
Just so we're clear: letting AT&T and Comcast write awful state law that strips away "states' rights" to the sole benefit of their monopoly revenues is perfectly fine. But the FCC using its legal authority to restore those same rights -- is a frontal assault on states' rights? Blackburn and Tillis are actually trying to dress up duopoly protectionism as some form of noble ethos in a particularly blistering wave of nonsensical hubris.
Blackburn's effort is unlikely to go anywhere, in part because even the ISPs that write these laws don't want to be publicly associated with them. You'll notice that while many large ISPs felt free to complain about net neutrality rules, most of them remained mute on the FCC's municipal broadband decision -- largely because buying protectionist state law is nearly impossible to coherently defend (as Tillis and Blackburn so deftly illustrate). Both Comcast and AT&T have mergers awaiting FCC review, so any full-throated support for keeping U.S. broadband uncompetitive will have to remain the purview of disingenuous intermediaries.
from the the-Supreme-Court-has-roundly-rejected-prior-restraint dept
The commissioners of a small Tennessee town have just voted to ban negative comments about it from social media. This stupid move was prompted by "criticism and lies" being posted online, which supposedly "hampered" the town's government from performing its duties.
South Pittsburg City is a town of 3,000. This fact will limit the damage done by its city commissioners' new policy (which passed with 4-1 vote), but only because the town itself is tiny. The ban, however, is super-broad. (via Ben Swann and BRACE YOURSELF for always-awesome AUTOPLAY)
It applies to all city elected representatives, appointed board members, employees, volunteers, vendors, contractors and anyone associated with the town in an official capacity who uses social networks. The policy says those persons can't post anything negative about the city, its employees or other associates.
Examples include posted videos, blogs, online forum discussions, Facebook and Twitter, Commissioner Jeff Powers said.
Now, it's obvious that this ban violates the First Amendment rights of everyone involved. It's obvious to the lone dissenting voter, Paul Don King. It's not so obvious to the rest of the commissioners, who have offered a variety of terrible defenses the new policy.
Commissioner Jeff Powers:
"It seems like every few meetings we're having to address something that's been on Facebook and created negative publicity," he said. "This is just an industry standard nowadays."
Oh, lord. Have you ever heard of such a slight inconvenience? "Every few meetings." Sounds exhausting. If he thinks it's a drag dealing with negative comments periodically, just wait until he has to actively police social media for violators.
One, you're a government, not an "industry." So, that makes this move censorship rather than some sort of half-assed town TOS. It's called prior restraint and it's something the Supreme Court has recognized as a violation of First Amendment rights. You can't just tell any group of people they can't criticize the town or its employees/"other associates." That's not an "industry standard." It's not even a "government standard." Criticism is to be expected, not shut down.
Powers follows that up by attempting to clarify the situation, but only makes it more incomprehensible.
Powers said the policy doesn't forbid the use of social media, and it can be amended in the future.
"The first thing everyone wants to say is 'I can't post anything on Facebook,'" he said. "Well, you can. Just not [anything] that sheds a negative light on any person, entity, board or things of that nature. You can go ahead and post all you want."
Oh, OK. You're not banning anyone employed by or doing business with the city from using social media. You're just forbidding them from criticizing anyone employed by or doing business with the city. You can "post all you want" EXCEPT.
And "fixing it in post" with amendments isn't a great way to run a town's government. The idea is to produce good policies and statutes, not bad statutes that need to be amended (or rolled back) before they can mesh with the Constitution.
City Attorney Billy Gouger said the new policy is not intended to infringe on anyone's right to free speech.
"What this policy tries to do is reconcile that right with other rights," he said. "It does, to some extent, limit your ability to criticize or comment in an official capacity."
I am completely lost as to how Gouger has managed to reconcile the policy he passed with the words he's saying in defense of it. It is definitely "intended to curtail free speech." Free speech is the opposite of this policy's wording. How is "limiting your ability to criticize or comment" not a limit of free speech? Because it's in an "official capacity?" Even if that limitation manages to pass Constitutional muster (and good luck!), the limitation is effectively meaningless because the range of people this policy covers is so broad. "Volunteers, vendors and contractors" are still private citizens even if they're doing business with the town.
If you want to write individual agreements with each of these listed parties stating that doing business with (or being employed by) South Pittsburg City means not criticizing South Pittsburg City, then by all means do so. These parties can waive their rights, but it's still their choice. You can't just take it away. That (again) is prior restraint -- something that is exactly a "limit on free speech."
Finally, some words of "wisdom" from the mayor herself.
"Criticism is one thing," Mayor Jane Dawkins said. "Out-and-out lies and untruths -- that's another thing. Those kinds of things are the things that will be directed."
Hey, there's a civil process for dealing with lies and untruths. Try using that instead. Libel and defamation are not protected speech and any of the four easily-bruised members of the city commission should avail themselves of that remedy. Shutting people up with a stupid, unconstitutional policy isn't the answer, no matter how small your town is. That the number of people whose free speech rights have just been constrained will likely be low is no excuse. It's still what it is: censorship in the form of prior restraint.
"You say there's not anything illegal in it. Do you mind if I search it today to make sure?" the officer asked.
Lisa responded, "I'd have to talk to my husband."
The agent continued, "I am asking you for permission to search your vehicle today -- and you are well within your rights to say no and you can say yes. It's totally up to you as to whether you want to show cooperation or not."
"You have to either give me a yes or no," he continued. "I do need an answer so I can figure out whether I need a dog to go around it or not."
Because the agent was unable to obtain consent from the couple, he decided to ask a dog. A drug-sniffing dog was brought in to examine the vehicle and, go figure, it alerted near the driver's side window (after ignoring the open passenger's side window). Finally having obtained "permission" for a warrantless search, the two agents went to work. An hour later -- and having disassembled the dashboard of the couple's new car -- they were unable to recover anything incriminating. But hey, no one's rights were violated because the drug dog told officers the car contained drugs, even though it didn't.
It also didn't contain any cash, which one agent told the Ronnie Hankins was far more likely to be hidden somewhere in the vehicle.
[W]hen Ronnie insisted there were no drugs, the agent confided he wasn't really expecting any.
"Well, I'll be honest with you, with you going this direction, I wouldn't think you'd have drugs in the car -- you would have a large amount of money," he said.
While drugs generally come from Mexico on the eastbound side of Interstate 40 and the drug money goes back on the westbound side, the investigation discovered police making 10 times as many stops on the so-called "money side."
The frustrated officers finally let the Hankins go, but not before making a last-ditch effort to redeem their futile efforts. The police report claims the interdiction agents found "marijuana debris" or "shake" on the floorboards of the vehicle. The Hankins claim the only thing on the floorboards was grass from the cemetery where Ronnie Hankins' grandfather was buried. Whether it was "grass" or grass, neither of the Hankins were charged or cited.
Tennessee's asset forfeiture laws are far worse than those in many states. 100% of the proceeds of any seizures go to the department that performed it. Legislative attempts to overhaul these laws have been mostly fruitless. A bill introduced in early 2013 aimed to eliminate this abuse by making seizures contingent on convictions. By the time the House and Senate had amended the bill, the only net gain was the prohibition of ex parte hearings. If Tennesee interdiction officers seize your money or other property, they now (the law went into effect at the beginning of this year) have to give you a date when you can show up and defend "forfeited" property from the accusations of law enforcement -- something of limited utility considering these officers tend to prey on drivers with out-of-state plates. Depending on what has been seized, it may be cheaper to allow the state to claim its ill-gotten goods rather than spending even more money to participate in a largely ceremonial process that often results in the state paying out only pennies on the dollar.
We've seen over and over again recently that schools seem to have a bizarre notion of how the First Amendment works with things like "free speech zones" and the like. There are all sorts of policies popping up that try to ban free speech. In perhaps the most famous court case concerning free speech in schools, Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court noted, importantly, that students do not shed their constitutional rights just because they've entered a school building. More recently, the courts have (tragically) chipped away at that ruling, but the core of it still stands. And schools still don't seem to realize that it's true. Instead, they seem to want, increasingly, to regulate speech of students in completely unconstitutional ways.
Over in Tennessee, the EFF and the ACLU have teamed up to challenge a new school board policy from the Williamson County Board of Education, which is something of a twofer: not only does it violate the First Amendment, but the Fourth Amendment as well. The policy is the school's "Acceptable Use, Media Release, and Internet Safety Procedures and Guidelines" that effectively bar students from ever saying anything the school deems "inappropriate" or "unauthorized" on any computer equipment that they bring to school (even if the speech is done off-campus) and also make all of the students subject to searches of their devices and monitoring of what they do online. Here's the short summary from the letter (which is quite detailed and runs 10 pages long):
Of particular concern are (i) the social media guidelines applicable to
students when engaged in off-campus speech; (ii) the "Bring Your Own
Technology" guidelines, pursuant to which students are required to consent to
suspicionless searches of their electronic devices "at any time" for any "school-
related purpose"; and (iii) the network security and email guidelines, pursuant to
which all data and communications of network users are subject to suspicionless
While the Policy may be the product of a well-intentioned effort to ensure
student safety and network security, and to ensure that classrooms are not
disrupted, the Policy goes too far and, as written, violates students' constitutional
rights. It (a) functions as a prior restraint on speech, allowing school officials to
censor student speech in and out of school, and (b) permits officials to conduct
suspicionless searches of (i) any electronic devices that students bring to school
and (ii) all data and communications stored or transmitted on the WCS network.
In so doing, the guidelines overstep the school district's authority and
impermissibly burden the First and Fourth Amendment rights of WCS students.
As the United States Supreme Court famously held in the landmark case Tinker v.
Des Moines Independent Community School District, students do not "shed their
constitutional rights . . . at the schoolhouse gate."
Let's hope the school district recognizes its mistake, otherwise it appears that there may be a legal challenge to the policy coming up shortly.