Editorial Roundup: Indiana

KPC News. Oct. 31, 2021.

Editorial: Free speech and public safety

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita has spent much time the past three weeks claiming that President Biden’s administration is threatening Hoosiers’ First Amendment rights when it comes to voicing opinions to school boards.

“We are shining a light on injustices perpetrated against parents of schoolchildren, and it’s making a real difference,” Rokita said in a news release. “We will continue to defend the rights of parents to stay closely involved with their children’s education and speak their minds to public school officials.”

On the surface, this might sound very noble, particularly if there were truly a move afoot by the Biden administration to silence parents. Instead, the Biden administration has been working to quell the violence and threats that have been leveled against school officials and particularly members of school boards that have been made by parents across the country.

Creating fear for personal safety should not be equated with free speech.

In one of the news releases, Rokita said, “everyone involved should work together to facilitate free speech by protecting all participants at school board meetings.”

Again, on its face, this sounds like something people can get behind. Instead, it ignores one of the basic tenets of the Indiana Open Door law: People do not have the right to speak during meetings.

In a discussion about the Open Door Law, the “Handbook on Indiana’s Public Access Laws” produced by the office of the Public Access Counselor and the Indiana Attorney General, it says the Open Door Law “does not guarantee the right to speak at public meetings. Although an individual has the right to attend and observe all public proceedings, no specific statutory authority allows an individual to appear before and address a governing body.” (This handbook was co-produced by Rokita’s own office!)

Many if not all of the school boards serving northeast Indiana slot out time during their meetings for patron comments. And for that, we applaud them.

Unfortunately, angry people, many of whom are opposed to COVID-19 policies and what they believe is being taught in their students’ classrooms, have been protesting loudly at board meetings. Others have leveled threats against school board members.

Instead of championing efforts to promote respectful speech, Rokita sent an Oct. 18 letter to federal officials demanding “that the Biden administration cease making threats against parents such as those contained in an Oct. 4 memo from the U.S. Department of Justice, which called for the FBI and other law enforcement to keep a close eye on parents nationwide to address supposed ‘threats against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff.”’

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Oct. 4 memo was about public safety, not curtailing free speech.

“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” Garland said. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”

What we have read about and seen on television and online would hardly count as supposed threats. They have been very real. People have been stalked. Their homes have been surrounded by protesters. Personal information about officials has been shared so even more people might harass them.

We have seen this rising trend of uncivil behavior at school board meetings in our communities. At least one school board member in the four-county area has tendered a resignation because this environment has become so caustic.

Rokita needs to be less partisan in his work. He needs to stop throwing fuel on the fire during these turbulent times. Like the Biden administration, Rokita should concentrate his efforts on protecting the safety of school board members and school officials and not focus on a faulty notion that the president is trying to impede First Amendment rights.

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Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Oct. 31, 2021.

Editorial: Police deal leaves much latitude for use of force

Demonstrators were angry after downtown protests last year.

Fort Wayne police lobbed tear gas into crowds gathered in the streets near the Allen County Courthouse in late May 2020, and protesters reported being shot with rubber bullets. One man lost an eye after being struck with a tear gas canister.

A federal lawsuit filed weeks later by the local protesters and the American Civil Liberties Union asked a judge to bar officers from using “unreasonable force ... including, but not limited to, employing tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper ball projectiles and stun grenades.”

“Police must not respond to protesters speaking out against police brutality with yet more brutality. We will not let these violent attacks on our constitutional rights go unchecked,” Ken Falk, legal director for ACLU of Indiana, said at the time.

“Excessive use of force against protesters chills free speech and widens the rift of distrust between communities and the police that are sworn to serve them.”

The ACLU later backed away from its request to prohibit police from acting similarly in the future and agreed to mediation with the city. The result: a five-page statement released Thursday that says officers have agreed to act differently.

But the statement – a “memorialization of agreed principles concerning protest activity in public places” adopted by Fort Wayne officials and the ACLU – is littered with phrases that seemingly allow officers wide latitude in determining what actions to take and when.

On “less-lethal impact munitions”: The agreement says they should “be used only when it is objectively reasonable to do so and shall only be used to target persons engaged in conduct reasonably perceived to pose an imminent threat” to others or property

On warnings made before using “crowd control-type chemical agents”: Police will take “reasonable measures” to announce the intention to use them, “absent exigent circumstances.”

Also “absent exigent circumstances,” officers will announce those intentions “in a manner to allow protesters and others the opportunity to comply and to leave the area.”

One section of the agreement says police – “when feasible” – will give directives and warnings about “deployment of personal protective devices.”

Unspoken are the questions of: Who decides whether a situation is “objectively reasonable?” How will officers determine when warning demonstrators is feasible? What is a reasonable measure?

The ACLU in June 2020 also sued the city of Indianapolis on behalf of protesters there, making claims similar to those in the Fort Wayne lawsuit. That resulted in a settlement in which police agreed not to use tear gas and other “riot control agents” to quell peaceful protests.

The local resolution to the case – protesters and the ACLU plan to dismiss their claims – makes clear the citizens “have the right to engage in nonviolent protests within constitutional and legal bounds.”

Rules for those charged with protecting that right should also be clear.

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South Bend Tribune. Oct. 31, 2021.

Editorial: A stark reminder of South Bend’s lead poisoning problem

A few years ago, we wrote several editorials about a longstanding problem that was no longer getting the attention it deserved in South Bend: lead poisoning, driven primarily by lead-based paint in older homes.

The city, in fact, had lost key federal funding to battle the problem, just as some neighborhoods were revealed to have some of Indiana’s highest rates of lead poisoning.

But since then, the city has redoubled its efforts to pursue state and federal funding, and now has $7 million available for residents to safely remove lead from their homes.

The St. Joseph County Health Department, students and faculty at Notre Dame, and other local groups have also focused on the issue in recent years, with various testing and outreach efforts.

Money for lead abatement? Check. Focus and attention? Check.

Problem solved? Not even close.

Another challenge continues to set back the efforts: getting residents to be aware of, and successfully navigate, the application process for lead abatement money.

As Tribune reporter Jeff Parrott revealed, the city recently sent out 160 applications for residents to enroll in the lead abatement program. But only 42 were returned, and only 10 have actually enrolled.

It was a slap-in-the-face reminder of the city’s lead poisoning problem and the obstacles to addressing an issue that dates back decades.

It looks even worse when you consider that the city of Fort Wayne has enrolled seven times as many homes in its lead abatement program, even though it has less money available than South Bend from the state and federal governments.

Local government and health officials say the application process, as dictated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, isn’t easy to navigate, especially requirements that applicants verify their income in various ways. Many residents also have a general awareness of the dangers of lead-based paint but don’t necessarily realize their children are at risk.

Lead paint chips or inhaling dust from lead paint can slow cognitive development in young children and has been linked to hyperactivity.

South Bend has hired a firm to help boost applications, with ideas such as focus groups, better messaging and an application guide. The city also has begun running promotional ads on Facebook and Instagram, including a video narrated by Common Council Member Canneth Lee.

Those are good new steps, but are they enough? Are there creative ideas elsewhere than can work here? What have other cities done successfully? What new partnerships or efforts can be forged with community groups who have shown they’re willing to help?

If part of the problem is education — residents not fully aware of the dangers in their homes and to their children — how can the city and community groups better spread the word?

South Bend a few years ago renewed its focus on securing the money needed for the expensive process of removing lead from older homes. It’s time now to put new focus and energy on how to reach the people most at risk, and how to help them walk through a process that can be daunting.

To learn more about South Bend’s lead abatement program, including how to apply, go to: https://southbendin.gov/leadsafesouthbend/.

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