Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Free Speech

Americans leave Egypt, but not without money changing hands

Activists-Egypt
The departure from Egypt of six American employees of nongovernmental organizations is good news for those involved and may dampen efforts in Congress to cut military aid to that country at a delicate time in Egyptian politics. But the price tag for their release -- $300,000 in bail  per defendant -- makes the  resolution  look more like a hostage deal than a victory for due process. Indeed, the Americans were hostages of a sort, having  taken refuge in the American Embassy in Cairo. One is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The  Egyptian government has not ended its investigation of  the National  Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute (LaHood's group), which walk the fine line between promoting democracy and interfering in Egypt's internal affairs. A State Department spokeswoman warned  that the decision to allow the activists to leave "doesn’t resolve the legal case or the larger issue of NGOs in Egypt," and noted that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton must certify to Congress this spring that Egypt is abiding by democratic principles.

The crisis might be finessed if Egypt's new parliament were to repeal the registration law the NGOs were accused of violating. But the initial reaction from Egyptian politicians  has been criticism of the military government for caving in to the United States. Investigating the NGOs may have been the brainchild of a holdover from the Hosni Mubarak regime, but perceived U.S. interference in the Egyptian judicial process offended even reformists.  Nor are the NGOs necessarily welcomed even by Egyptian parties that took advantage of their expertise in the past.

Meanwhile, the imagery of the Americans' ordeal isn't likely to do a lot for tourism.

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Israel's risky option on Iran

Move over, Egypt, Iraq and Syria

The West to Syria's rebels: You aren't Libya

-- Michael McGough

Photo: American activists arrive to the airport to leave Egypt aboard a U.S. military plane, in Cario, Egypt, on March 1, after the government lifted the travel ban. Credit: STR/EPA

Chipping away at Arizona's SB 1070

 Getprev

A federal judge has temporarily blocked yet another provision of Arizona's controversial SB 1070 immigration measure from being enforced. The 2010 law made it a crime for a person to block traffic when seeking or offering work on streets.

U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton ruled Wednesday that groups who challenged the provision were likely to succeed in proving the measure violates the 1st Amendment. Immigrant and civil rights groups had argued that the law targeted day laborers' speech, not traffic problems.

Bolton rightly noted that state officials already have a slew of civil penalties on the books that can be used against individuals who violate traffic laws or create road hazards.

The ruling shouldn't come as a surprise. On Feb. 21, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reinstate Redondo Beach's anti-solicitation ordinance. The high court let stand a lower court ruling that found the city's attempt to stop day laborers from seeking work on street corners was so broad that it was nothing short of an unconstitutional attack on free speech. Redondo Beach had spent more than 20 years defending its anti-solicitation ordinance.

No one disputes that cities or states should be able to prosecute those who endanger public safety or create a nuisance. But communities should avail themselves of laws already in place that target jaywalking, trespassing or traffic violations instead of enacting new ones that result only in long and expensive legal battles.

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Rick Santorum vs. JFK

The war over day laborers

--Sandra Hernandez  

Photo: Recent court rulings have gone in favor of day laborers. Credit:  Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times

The Supreme Court shouldn't make resume-padding a crime

Xavier AlvarezWednesday was a bad day for liars at the Supreme Court. Even liberal justices seemed unsympathetic to a Pomona man who was prosecuted under a law known as the Stolen Valor Act for boasting at a public meeting that he had received the Medal of Honor. (That wasn't his only whopper. He also claimed to have played professional hockey and to have been injured while rescuing a U.S. diplomat during the Iran hostage crisis.)

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law. One judge drolly argued that if "false factual statements are unprotected, then the government can prosecute not only the man who tells tall tales of winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, but also the JDater who falsely claims he's Jewish or the dentist who assures you it won't hurt a bit. Phrases such as 'I'm working late tonight, hunny,' 'I got stuck in traffic'  and 'I didn't inhale' could all be made into crimes."

Members of the Supreme Court weren't about to salute that parade of horribles.  Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked the U.S. solicitor general if the government also could punish people who lied about attaining a high school diploma, but Roberts didn't seem to find the idea all that objectionable. Even more revealing of Roberts' attitude was a question he posed to the lawyer for Xavier Alvarez, the Medal of Honor wannabe: "What is the 1st Amendment value in a lie, pure lie?" 

The lawyer fumbled at first but later re-framed the issue in what I think is a persuasive way: "Our founders believed that Congress as a general principle doesn't get to tell us what we as individuals can and cannot say."  Obviously there are exceptions: If Alvarez had lied about his military record to obtain money, he would have been  guilty of the eminently prosecutable crime of fraud. But in itself a  pathetic claim to military glory -- a claim easily debunked by a visit to the Internet -- isn't the sort of statement a free society should criminalize.

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Dealing with undocumented drivers

GOP's reckless saber-rattling on Iran

Which political force is more powerful: gas prices or optimism?

-- Michael McGough

Photo: Xavier Alvarez. Credit: Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Valentine's Day in Portland: 'No, honey, I said M&Ms!'

Portland Valentine's Day lovers
Keep the government out of the back of my Subaru!

By now you've no doubt read or heard about the Portland couple arrested after an attempted bit of Valentine's Day, uh, romantic role-playing went awry.

Seems that 26-year-old Stephanie Pelzner was in the back seat of a Subaru Legacy driven by 31-year-old Nikolas Harbar and, well, Pelzner was tied up, and had duct tape over her mouth, and was, well, yes, naked. And someone at a New Seasons Market spotted her, and I guess that even in a Portland market parking lot this seemed a bit odd. 

Now, perhaps Harbar went to the market looking for roses and candy for his sweetheart, and they were sold out, so being a man, he said, "I know what sounds romantic," and Pelzner, being a woman, didn't want to hurt his feelings and say, "No, really, a card is fine," and ...

Anyway, in a kind of screwball comedy of errors that Hollywood once turned out by the dozens, concerned citizens called the Portland police and the police dispatched nine cars and the officers tracked the couple down to their residence and Harbar explained they were just having a little Valentine's Day fun and Pelzner said she was fine (I guess someone removed the duct tape) -- but the police booked them on charges of disorderly conduct in the second degree, which is apparently what the charge is for in essence annoying the police in Portland.

And to think, I got M&Ms for Valentine's Day.

Now, I've heard of the "broken windows" policy of policing, but this is my first experience with "peeping Tom" policing.

Like a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, did I fall asleep for a year and now it turns out that Rick Santorum is president?

Are there now little drones flying around the nation's skies equipped with cameras that sense body heat and alert police to those being naked and naughty in mid-priced Japanese imports?

Have lovers' lanes been outlawed?  After all, they are a kind of gateway drug; unlike Vegas, what happens there doesn't stay there. Just ask Bristol Palin.

Or perhaps this is the latest example of the class warfare sparked by the Democrats?  Would Harbar and Pelzer have been OK if they'd been in a BMW or Mercedes?

So many questions, so little duct tape -- and clothing. 

Really, though, I understand the concerns of the citizens who called police. I lived in a small town once. Your business is everyone's business. Plus, you can't be too careful these days.

And I applaud the police for taking it seriously, I do.

But why the charges?  Why the mug shots?  Once the truth became known, wasn't embarrassment punishment enough?  Do we really want to make "hanky panky in a moving vehicle" a criminal offense? Wasn't Prohibition bad enough?

I visited Portland recently.  Nice place.  Has dirt streets, with street signs and all, right in the middle of town.

What it doesn't have, I guess, is a police department with a sense of humor.

So my advice to Stephanie and Nikolas -- and all you other crazy lovebirds in Portland: Try M&Ms next year instead.

ALSO:

Valentine's Day: When love hurts

Valentine's Day: Symbiotic love connection

Pension spiking: Turning sick days into retirement pay

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: Nikolas Harbar, left, and Stephanie Pelzner. Credit: Portland Police Bureau

Afghanistan's foiled 10-year-old suicide bombers come back for more

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan
What do you call a 10-year-old boy in Afghanistan? Apparently, a suicide bomber.

The Times reported Tuesday that two 10-year-olds who had been arrested for trying to carry out suicide attacks, then released last year, had been rearrested -- for trying to carry out suicide bombings.

Provincial spokesman Zalmay Ayubi said the boys each had a vest full of explosives when they were detained along with three adults suspected of being militants, and that they told intelligence officers they had been recruited for suicide missions.

A statement from provincial officials quoted one of the boys, named Azizullah, as saying the pair had undergone training at a madrasa, or religious school, in Pakistan. The mullahs there told the boys they would be unharmed when they set off their bombs, Azizullah reportedly said.

News of the boys' arrest came the same week that Muslim militant Umar Patek appeared in court in Indonesia to answer charges related to deadly bombings a decade ago in Bali that killed 202 people in a nightclub. Oddly enough -- or perhaps not -- he was captured last year in Abbottabad, the Pakistani town where Osama bin Laden was hiding.

But unlike the 202 people killed in the bombings, Patek gets a lawyer. And surprise, he downplayed his client's role: "His involvement in the Bali bombing ... [was] not as big as is being described. We will challenge that in a defense plea next week."

Also this week, a radical Islamic preacher, Abu Qatada, who had been under detention in Britain for most of the last 6 1/2 years, was released from jail Monday.

British officials consider him extremely dangerous, saying he encourages suicide attacks and terrorism, and they want him sent back to Jordan to face terrorism charges.

But Abu Qatada also is being given the benefit of the doubt in some legal circles. Last month the European Court of Human Rights blocked his deportation, saying he could face conviction on the basis of evidence obtained by torture.

And what do these cases have in common?  

They show the difficulty -- perhaps even the futility -- of trying to fight terrorism within the judicial system.

When religious leaders find it acceptable to use children as bombs, it says something terrible about the values of our enemies.

And although it's a tribute to modern society that we remain committed to legal rules, those same legal rules can be -- are being -- manipulated by those committed to our destruction.

It would be nice if there were an easy answer.  Perhaps the madrasas that are training children to be terrorists should be shut down?

Not likely.  As the recent controversy in the U.S. over health insurance coverage for contraceptives shows, government interference in religious freedom is a tough sell everywhere.

No, we're stuck. We must stick to our legal system. We must allow freedom of religion.

And we must fight our enemies and safeguard our soldiers and our nation.

But it would be nice if we could keep 10-year-olds out of the fight.

ALSO:

On Iran, a stark choice

Obama's contraception compromise

Goldberg: Free healthcare? That's rich

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: Taliban fighters walk with their weapons after joining the Afghan government forces during a ceremony in Herat province. Credit: Aref Karimi /AFP/Getty Images

Contraception and women's rights -- it's still a man's world

President Obama offered a compromise Friday on health insurance coverage for contraceptives

When it comes to contraception, it's still a man's world.

President Obama offered a compromise Friday on health insurance coverage for contraceptives. (For a thoughtful take on how that's likely to work, read my colleague Jon Healey's post, "The White House wishes away the cost of contraception coverage.")

Really, though, this issue isn't about health insurance, or healthcare costs, or even religious freedom and the 1st Amendment. This is about power.

It's about men telling women what they can and can't do with their bodies.

And that's ridiculous.

The Roman Catholic Church is dominated by men. So, for that matter, is Islam. And so are a number of Christian churches -- the Mormon Church, for example.

Which is why we find ourselves, in the 21st century, with these faiths -- and the men who run them --  dictating to women on that most vital issue: the health of their own bodies.

It's a very old story: Men have power over women, and they certainly don't seem to want to give it up.

No, no, it's about religious freedom, you say. That's what the Catholic bishops argue, anyway. You could ask their female peers in the church what they think, but -- oh, that’s right, they don't have any female peers!

Huh.

No. This is about women's freedom -– the freedom too many women don't have.

If a woman chooses not to use birth control, or chooses not to have an abortion, that's freedom.

If a man, whether a religious leader or a pandering politician, tells her what she's able to do, that's, well, it's certainly not freedom.

These same religious leaders and politicians often talk about respecting women. 

Respecting women isn't telling them what to do "for their own good." And hiding behind religion to deny contraceptive coverage is simply another way to perpetuate that abusive, illogical and antiquated notion.

Want to respect women?

Then make sure they have the freedom to decide for themselves.

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Daum: Tigers Moms vs. Bebe Moms

Obama, Romney and the battle of the bands

Alabama's immigration law: Denying children food stamps

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: President Obama on Friday announces revamping of the policy on health insurance coverage for contraceptives. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is at left. Credit: Susan Walsh / Associated Press

Clint Eastwood to Karl Rove: 'Do you feel lucky?'

Chrysler's Super Bowl ad Sunday, which featured a patriotic message delivered by Clint Eastwood, was decried by Karl Rove and others as a sop to the Obama administration and its bailout of the U.S. auto industry

To paraphrase (badly) Neil Armstrong: "That was one small ad for Chrysler, one giant leap for political pundits."

Not to mention that Clint Eastwood apparently didn't "make Karl Rove's day," although I'm sure Bill O'Reilly was "feeling lucky" after Eastwood gave a statement to his Fox News show Tuesday night.

Chrysler's Super Bowl ad Sunday, which featured a deeply patriotic message delivered by Eastwood, was quickly decried by Rove and others as a sop to the Obama administration and its bailout of the U.S. auto industry.

On Monday on Fox News, Rove, in essence, drew first:

"I'm a huge fan of Clint Eastwood. I thought it was an extremely well-done ad, but it is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising and the best wishes of the management, which is benefited by getting a bunch of our money that they'll never pay back."

On Tuesday night's "The O'Reilly Factor,' Inspector Harry Callahan let Rove look down the barrel of his .44 Magnum:

"I just want to say that the spin stops with you guys, and there is no spin in that ad. On this I am certain. l am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama. It was meant to be a message just about job growth and the spirit of America. I think all politicians will agree with it. I thought the spirit was OK. I am not supporting any politician. Chrysler to their credit didn’t even have cars in the ad. Anything they gave me for it went to charity. If Obama or any other politician wants to run with the spirit of that ad, I say go for it."

Really, though, how did we get here?  Do we have to start reading the tea leaves of Bud Light commercials for political messages?

And as for Chrysler, who knows what to think. The company, which is owned by the Italian automaker Fiat, puts out a simple, pro-America ad, then somehow gets bashed for being pro-Obama.

What, you think Chrysler was supposed to say "Hey, thanks for nothing, America and Mr. President; now buy our cars"?

Meanwhile, in its other ad -- for a Fiat 500 Abarth -- the Italian company features a Romanian supermodel (speaking Italian) who seduces a nerdy American on a street in some big American city.

What horrible message did that send?  Oh, I know: That Obama's a European-style socialist, and that he's seeking to seduce Americans by flaunting the sex appeal of a native of a former Soviet bloc country, and he wants you to buy cars built in a profligate European nation that's deeply in debt, and ...

Ouch. Enough.

Although I will say, if someone calls Eastwood next year for a Super Bowl ad, I'm afraid his response will be right out of "Dirty Harry":

"Well, you can just get yourself another delivery boy."

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M.I.A. has digit malfunction, flips off the Super Bowl

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Scene from Chrysler's Super Bowl ad featuring Clint Eastwood. Credit: Chrysler

M.I.A. has digit malfunction, flips off the Super Bowl

MIA at the Super BowlEight years after Janet Jackson's famous wardrobe malfunction, the Super Bowl halftime show has delivered another performance not suitable for broadcast TV. I'm not talking about Madonna's surprisingly inexpert lip-syncing Sunday; I'm referring to M.I.A., the English rapper, extending her middle finger to the global television audience while a recording of her voice blares "I don't give a shhhhhh."

If you're one of the 15 people who didn't tune in, it's easy to find recordings of M.I.A.'s bird-flipping online. NBC's censors were a tad slow on the draw, so the video goes fuzzy after the deed is done, not during. That's likely to prompt the morality police to complain to the Federal Communications Commission, which has a zero-tolerance policy for the spoken equivalent of the rapper's gesture. At least, that's the FCC's policy today; the Supreme Court is in the process of deciding whether it's constitutional for the agency to penalize broadcasters for airing the fleeting use of an expletive.

Given how she courts controversy, it's no surprise that M.I.A. would use the Super Bowl stage to do something meant to be shocking. Perhaps that's what Madonna had in mind when she gave the rapper a cameo role (alongside Nicki Minaj) in one segment of her show. The Material Girl has reached the age at which she's entitled to provoke by proxy.

Still, M.I.A. seems to have missed an important memo from the Powers That Be. Appearing in a Super Bowl halftime show means that you've crossed the line separating artistic integrity and commercialism. If you're not celebrating a career, you're either pimping a new record to the masses or trying to introduce yourself to them. In other words, you're taking a short cut in the path to global stardom.

This is a forgivable transgression if you're already a global star and you absolutely kill, as Prince did in 2007. Otherwise, it's just a declaration that you're part of the Big Corporate Entertainment Machine and you're in it for the money.

That's fine, really -- even musicians have to pay the rent. But once you've crossed that line, you can't credibly flip the bird at your audience. In a sense, M.I.A. did that just by appearing on the Super Bowl stage.

Maybe M.I.A. was trying to show that she can keep it real no matter how many people are watching. She's a rule-breaker! No one tells her what to do! A better way to deliver that message, though, would have been to turn down the invitation to play a bit part in the Madonna Traveling Circus. Turning her back on the chance for Super Bowl fame would have been better for M.I.A. than the fame she found Sunday.

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-- Jon Healey

Credit: Christopher Polk / Getty Images

Copyrights: Legal hurdles to retrieving files from Megaupload

Megaupload headquarters
Megaupload users got a temporary reprieve this week when the companies that hosted the site's servers, Carpathia Hosting and Cogent Communications, agreed not to delete any Megaupload data for at least two weeks. But actually enabling users to retrieve their data won't be easy, given how their interests may conflict with those of copyright owners.

When the Justice Department shut down Megaupload and indicted top executives for criminal copyright infringement, users of the site lost access to the files they'd stored there -- precipitously and without warning. The department initially took an Alfred E. Newmann stance, saying users had been warned to keep backup copies of the files they uploaded. At least at first, prosecutors acted as if Megaupload was just another file-sharing service, not a platform that supported legitimate uses alongside unlawful ones.

The fact is, Megaupload's 50 million accounts included some unknown percentage of users who didn't infringe on anyone's copyrights -- for example, musicians and filmmakers who used the lockers to collaborate on large files. Preventing Megaupload users from accessing the files they've stored legitimately is potentially a violation of their 1st Amendment rights, argued Julie Samuels, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That's because they have a free-speech interest not just in their own creative works but in the works of others that they've legitimately acquired and shared. And the longer their access is blocked, the more problematic that is constitutionally.

The Justice Department reportedly has been having "productive conversations" with Megaupload about how to address the problem of lost files, Samuels said. But there are a host of legal and technical issues that remain to be addressed.

For starters, if a Megaupload file is copyrighted, how can the company make sure that the person who claims it has the right to download a copy? The answer may be as simple as having users submit affidavits attesting to the fact that the files they're accessing were in fact theirs, Samuels said. But what about files that may be illegal on their face, such as digital movie files stripped of their electronic locks? Should anyone be allowed to download those?

Then again, users with suspect files may be better off if the servers were erased before copyright owners could subpoena their contents. As it is, the Justice Department has copied at least some of the servers' contents, and copyright holders may be sorely tempted to check for evidence of high-volume infringers worth suing.

The EFF and Carpathia launched a website Tuesday, Megaretrieval.com, to gather information from "innocent users who stored legitimate, non-infringing files." According to Samuels, EFF attorneys want to give those users some say in what happens to Megaupload's servers. But it's not clear what responsibility, if any, the government has to preserve the data, or how long users can be denied access to their files.

"We’re on a fact-finding mission right now. I don't know the best way forward," Samuels said. "We're asking folks to take a second, take a deep breath, consider the rights of innocent third parties who are caught up in this dragnet and go from there."

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Feds push novel theories in Megaupload case

Should the feds have more power to seize domain names?

Dueling story lines for PIPA, SOPA and 'foreign rogue websites'

-- Jon Healey

Photo: Megaupload headquarters in Hong Kong. Credit: AP Photo / Government Information Service

Brewer and Obama go toe-to-toe. So?

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer with President Obama
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, meet Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas.  

You two have something in common -- a visible dislike of President Obama.

On Wednesday, Brewer met Obama on the tarmac in Phoenix as he got off Air Force One, and the two had a brief but animated conversation, including at one point some finger-pointing by the governor.  Pool reporters said Obama walked away mid-sentence.

From Times reporter Christi Parsons' story

Brewer told pool reporter Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico that the president seemed upset about her book, "Scorpions for Breakfast," in which she criticizes Obama for opposing her [immigration] law….

A White House official offered this take on the encounter: "The governor handed the president a letter and said she was inviting him to meet with her. The president said he'd be glad to meet with her again, but did note that after their last meeting, a cordial discussion in the Oval Office, the governor inaccurately described the meeting in her book."

The Arizona dustup came two days after goalie Thomas declined to join his Stanley Cup champion teammates who met with the president at the White House for one of those sports photo-ops.

In a posting on his Facebook page the next day, the Bruins star explained his absence:

I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.

This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government.

Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.

This is the only public statement I will be making on this topic. TT

OK, I think it's safe to say that neither Brewer nor Thomas will be invited to a state dinner soon.

But were their actions over the top? Were they disrespectful to the president? Was what they did exactly what's wrong with the country?

Not really. All they did was act like, well, Americans.

We don't have a king. We have a president. We respect the office -- but we are free to disagree with its occupant.

Don't like his policies? Then don't show up for a silly photo-op.

Don't like his policies? Then tell him so, in a civil but forceful way, to his face.

And if he doesn't like what you're saying? Then he can tell you so, in a civil but forceful way, to your face -- and even walk away.

Honestly, we'll know we're in trouble as a country when people can't do what Thomas -- and Brewer and Obama -- did this week.

And frankly, I like that a lot better than hearing John A. Boehner introduce Obama before the State of the Union address with the traditional House speaker's line -- "Members of the Congress, I have the high privilege and the distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States" -- when that same House speaker has already bashed the president’s proposals as "pathetic"  and then, after the address, labels it "just another campaign speech." 

Yes, our leaders need to work together. And sure, it wouldn't hurt for everyone to step back and just take a deep breath now and again.

But presidents are people, and there's no harm in letting them -- and those who disagree with them -- act like it more often.

ALSO:

McManus: Obama's common touch

Jan Brewer 'confident' Supreme Court will uphold immigration law 

Huntington lands treasure trove of Lincoln letters, Civil War telegrams 

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and President Obama in an animated exchange at the airport in Phoenix on Wednesday. Credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari / Associated Press

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