Editorial Roundup: Wisconsin

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. November 7, 2021.

Editorial: Unneeded secrecy undermines trust

We’re not going to say much about the ongoing trial of Kyle Rittenhouse. There’s enough of a circus surrounding it, and it’s up to jurors to decide anyway. But there’s one detail revealed in the trial that jumped out at us because of its national implications, one we don’t feel we can be silent on.

It surprised many that the FBI had surveillance video of the protests in Kenosha taken from an airplane it had circling the area. Prosecutors said video from the plane would show how events unfolded.

The presence of aerial surveillance is not, in and of itself, a particular concern. Nor is it uncommon. An August 2020 report from the Air Force inspector general included information about similar use of surveillance at protests in locations ranging from Washington, D.C., to California.

There were planes from the FBI over Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. When the Associated Press looked at the practice in 2015, it found the FBI had at least 50 surveillance planes, and that the Drug Enforcement Administration has at least 92.

The reason we don’t see the aircraft themselves as a concern is identical to the reason there’s not much cause to worry about seeing a Google Maps car driving around. When you’re out in public, such as at a protest, there’s no presumption of a right to privacy. Provided the surveillance is limited to actions in such public settings, we’re not overly concerned.

There are also legal limits in place for how far law enforcement can go. In 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the use of surveillance. A more recent case in Baltimore saw the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals back limits, too. Police there had equipped aircraft with wide angle lenses that effectively covered the entire city for 12 hours each day. The appeals court found that kind of surveillance was too broad and violated residents’ constitutional rights.

What caught our attention was a separate detail in the wire story. That same 2015 investigation “traced the planes to at least 13 fake companies designed to obscure the identity of the aircraft and the pilots.” That’s much more troubling.

Everyone knows that law enforcement uses aircraft in their operations. A few weeks ago the most watched aircraft on flightradar24.com, a site that tracks the locations of aircraft worldwide, was a Florida sheriff’s helicopter circling the nature reserve where the search for Brian Laundrie was taking place. The use of aircraft by law enforcement is both widely known and widely accepted.

It’s easy to understand why such aerial surveillance is attractive for law enforcement. It’s an impressively useful tool. The view from a plane or helicopter is not obstructed by buildings in the same way as that of an officer at ground level. High-quality cameras can show startlingly sharp detail. Infrared cameras can track fleeing suspects through their own body heat.

So why hide the fact the FBI and other federal agencies both have and use such tools? Why go to the lengths of setting up false companies to conceal something people already know about?

Such secrecy for an act that can be done openly has inherently sinister connotations. It can only serve to call law enforcement’s intent into question. It can only erode trust.

We’re not talking about an aircraft off the coast flying drug interdiction against armed smugglers or officers needing the element of surprise. These instances are what should be more of a shepherd’s role than that of a predator, intervening should the need arise rather than hiding until spotting an opportunity to pounce.

As we’ve said before, there is a need for those who carry out the laws to not just follow those laws, but be seen to do so. There are indeed cases where investigations need to conceal the hand behind them, lest those under investigation have the opportunity to conceal illegal activities. Keeping an eye on protests isn’t one of them.

The combination of the words “secret” and “police” have a long and fraught history, and this practice treads perilously close to the line. It’s not necessary. It’s not beneficial, either to the FBI or the Americans they serve. The FBI should end its use of false companies to hide surveillance aircraft.

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Wisconsin State Journal. November 8, 2021.

Editorial: Don’t let the loudmouths scare away school board candidates

Madison needs and deserves a robust debate next spring over the future of its public schools.

So do other communities across Wisconsin.

But that won’t happen if few people — or none at all — run for these important leadership positions. Insults and intimidation from obnoxious critics of health protocols, “critical race theory” and police in schools are scaring away good candidates.

Witness the loudmouths in communities such as Burlington and Kenosha who have shut down school board meetings over mask and vaccine mandates during the deadly pandemic. Or consider the screaming protesters who pressured Madison to pull its cops from high schools despite violence and weapons.

A civil debate over our K-12 schools is needed, not a shouting match that undermines our democracy by chilling community input and involvement.

For the first time in a decade, only one candidate ran for an open seat on the Madison School Board last spring. At the same time, the only incumbent up for reelection ran unopposed. That meant the public was robbed of a healthy debate and choice as it seeks to guide the education of its children.

The pandemic may have deterred some from seeking office. But the open seat on the Madison School Board was created when the board president retired after being taunted in foul ways outside her private home. Can you blame her? A school board member in Beaver Dam similarly resigned this fall, citing safety concerns for his family.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards doesn’t track the number of open seats or vacancies across the state. But concern that fewer candidates may run is “a very reasonable, rational concern,” WASB spokesperson Sheri Krause said Friday.

It’s also possible that controversy over COVID-19 rules and racial discussions in schools could prompt more people to launch bids. We hope more candidates seek office, though partisan politics infecting school decisions is disturbing.

Some good news came last week when recall attempts failed against four incumbent school board members in Mequon, north of Milwaukee. Thousands of dollars in out-of-state money influenced the race, which drew national attention. Wisconsin has experienced recall attempts against 36 school board members in 16 districts (mostly related to COVID-19 restrictions) since the pandemic began, according to Middleton-based Ballotpedia. That was the highest number in any state except California, which is seven times larger than Wisconsin.

Rather than trying to recall public servants in the middle of their terms, the time to run for office is in the regular spring election.

Prospective candidates should start gearing up now by visiting schools, honing their platforms, speaking to neighbors and seeking endorsements. Candidates can begin collecting nomination signatures Dec. 1. They’ll need as few as 20 signatures in small school districts, or more than 100 in larger cities such as Madison, by Jan. 4. The spring primary is Feb. 15. The general election is April 5.

School board candidates are officially nonpartisan, which is good. They’re basically volunteers. In Madison, members make $8,000 a year for what can feel like a full-time job.

Madison’s schools were closed most of last year to in-person instruction, which frustrated many parents and students. Most other districts found ways to safely educate their children in person despite the virus.

Since police officers were pulled from Madison’s high schools, troubling violence has occurred. Property taxes are up 9%. Achievement gaps persist.

The district’s many challenges and its successes deserve lots of attention. That will require candidates.

Schools are essential to the health and success of every community, large or small. Please consider running this spring if you are passionate about the future of our children.

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Racine Journal Times. November 10, 2021.

Editorial: Governors shouldn’t try to muzzle professors

Three University of Florida professors were temporarily barred from assisting plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn that state’s new law restricting voting rights.

Facing a storm of protest, the university on Friday abandoned its plan to bar Sharon D. Wright Austin, Daniel A. Smith and Michael McDonald from testifying in the suit. Hours later, however, the professors sued university officials in federal court, claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated. They asked the court to permanently bar the university from limiting their outside work on matters opposing the state’s interests.

The ban, as the New York Times put it before it was lifted, “is an extraordinary limit on speech that raises questions of academic freedom and First Amendment rights.”

University officials had told the three that because the school was a state institution, participating in a lawsuit against the state “is adverse to U.F.’s interests” and could not be permitted.

In their filing, the lawyers sought to question Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, on whether he was involved in the decision.

We recognize DeSantis has his supporters, and detractors, outside Florida. Here’s where we ask you to momentarily set aside your political leanings.

Why is The Journal Times editorializing about the activities of the governor of Florida with regard to the University of Florida?

We don’t want any precedents being set.

“The whole purpose of a university and academic freedom is to allow scholars free rein to conduct research,” Henry Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University-East Bay and an author of two books on academic freedom, said in a Times interview. “The ultimate logic of this is that you can be an expert in the United States, except in the state where you’re actually working and being paid by the state.”

We wouldn’t want any Wisconsin governor, of any party, thinking they could muzzle UW System professors.

System professors conduct research paid for by the taxpayers of Wisconsin. They work for us, just as the governor does.

We reserve the right to call upon the experts whose salaries we pay.

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