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Law firm’s investigation of HRC head seen as conflict of interest

A Human Rights Campaign representative responded with a series of bullet points essentially denying any conflict of interest

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Alphonso David at 2019 HRC National Dinner (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – After a damning report on sexual misconduct allegations that forced Andrew Cuomo to resign as governor of New York and that ensnared the Human Rights Campaign president for having a potential role in the cover-up, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group has arranged for a law firm to conduct an independent review of its president’s role in the scandal — but legal experts see a conflict of interest looming over the process.

Sidley Austin LLP, the law firm chosen to conduct the review, has a self-described “long standing pro-bono relationship” with the Human Rights Campaign and was chief among its legal partners announced in October 2019 for a new direction to litigation in LGBTQ advocacy, which was an engagement Alphonso David undertook when he took the helm as HRC’s president.

In fact, Sidley issued a news statement hailing its participation in the agreement with the Human Rights Campaign and six other law firms, which Sidley described as an “alliance” designed to “help shape state and federal laws, regulations and policies and the application of constitutional principles.”

“We’re looking forward to working with the Human Rights Campaign on strategic litigation that will take on discriminatory measures targeting LGBTQ people,” Carter Phillips, partner at Sidley, is quoted as saying in the statement. “HRC is a long-standing pro bono client and this next stage of collaboration reinforces Sidley’s deep commitment to advocating for diversity and equality.”

As a result of the 2019 announcement, which was brokered soon after David took the helm of the Human Rights Campaign, some legal experts see a conflict of interest that undermines the perception of impartiality in Sidley’s ongoing review and could color any finding of no wrongdoing, which would arguably be in the interests of all parties involved in the review.

Brenner Fissell, a law professor who teaches legal ethics at Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y., told the Blade the independent review Sidley is undertaking “appears less than credible.”

“This is not even a relationship where they engaged them once,” Fissell said. “Sidley in the press release calls HRC a long-standing pro bono client, and they’re also doing PR for them. I mean, they’re really inextricably connected, right?”

The scandal with the Human Rights Campaign president began when New York Attorney General Letitia James issued her report finding Cuomo violated the law by sexually harassing as many as 11 women on the job. David, who before taking over as Human Rights Campaign president was counselor to the governor of New York, was named nearly a dozen times in the report.

David has continued to deny wrongdoing. However, the findings indicate after his tenure as counselor to Cuomo, he kept the personnel file of an employee accusing the governor of sexual misconduct, then assisted in returning that file to Cuomo staffers seeking to leak it to the media in an attempt to discredit her. (A representative has disputed the characterization of material David kept as a personnel file, saying it was memorandum on an internal employment matter David kept because he, in part, worked on it.)

Further, the report finds David allegedly said he would help find individuals to sign their names to a draft op-ed that sought to discredit the survivor but went unpublished, although he wouldn’t sign the document himself. Also, the report indicates David was involved in the discussions about secretly calling and recording a call between a former staffer and another survivor in a separate effort to smear her.

In response, David said he agreed to help with only one version of the letter that was more positive in nature and his part of the discussion about recording a survivor was limited to his role as counselor.

Although the Human Rights Campaign board has stood by David and announced on the day after the report came out it has renewed his contract for another five years, last week it announced an independent investigation to resolve the matter. The investigation would be conducted by Sidley and last no longer than 30 days. David has publicly endorsed the review.

But the pre-existing close relationship between Sidley and the Human Rights Campaign has left some legal observers questioning the merits of the investigation.

Fissell said no ethical rules are in place for conducting independent investigations per se, especially because Sidley has never represented David before as a client. As a result, Fissell said there is likely no technical violation of ethics rules over conflict of interest in this scenario.

The only real framework for independent investigations that could be a model of the review for this situation, Fissell said, is found in the handbook for the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. Among the factors considered in such investigations, Fissell said, is whether outside counsel conducting the review had previously done work for a company or if management previously engaged such counsel.

“If you had previously engaged such counsel, that makes it less independent,” Fissell said. “So the answer to your question is, this is not good if you want to do a truly independent investigation.”

Fissell also questioned why 30 days was selected as the time limit for the investigation, which he said seems artificial and could limit findings.

Sidley didn’t respond to repeated email requests from the Blade for answers to a series of written questions on the independent investigation and its pre-existing relationship with the Human Rights Campaign, including whether or not Phillips, the attorney quoted in the news statement would participate in the ongoing review.

A Human Rights Campaign representative, however, responded to similar inquiries from the Blade with a series of bullet points essentially denying any conflict of interest and standing by the decision to charge Sidley with the investigation.

The representative in the bullet points said the Human Rights Campaign chose Sidley “because of its vast experience in internal investigations and reviews” and is “grateful that Sidley has always represented us on a pro bono basis, including in this matter.”

“Sidley has not represented HRC on any matter related to any of the issues in the current internal investigation that Sidley is conducting,” the representative said.

The Human Rights Campaign representative said Sidley is one of many firms that has worked for the LGBTQ organization, but has “never represented Alphonso David on any matter.” In conducting the investigation, the representative said Sidley reports to an independent Board of Directors for the Human Rights Campaign.

Michael Frisch, an ethics counsel and adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School, told the Blade a law firm being charged with conducting an investigation for an entity after having a previous relationship with it is “always potentially a problem.”

“When any outside entity is retained to conduct an independent review, it has to be truly independent,” Frisch said. “To me, if you’re going to conduct an independent inquiry. Your bonafides to give independent advice in a report is always subject of concern, and one should be above reproach in those situations.”

Frisch, asked if the potential for a conflict is present in Sidley’s investigation of the Human Rights Campaign president, said he couldn’t directly opine on that without knowing all the details about the situation.

“You analyze any conflict of interest from the point of view of is there a substantial risk that the lawyers’ advice will be colored by some interest, other than the client who’s getting the advice,” Frisch said. “The magic language in the rule is substantial risk of material limitation, that’s essentially the test. Every client is entitled to independent advice.”

Asked if a law firm like Sidley could take any internal steps to mitigate the appearance of conflict of interest while continuing to conduct an independent investigation, Frisch said those options, such as walls or ethical screens, aren’t in play here.

“Those kinds of mechanisms to defeat conflicts don’t sound like they’re applicable in this kind of situation because it doesn’t really sound like client-client conflicts,” Frisch said. “A report is not like litigation in that there are parties and opposing counsel and things of that nature that you would have obligations to.”

Frisch concluded: “So that’s where I kind of get back to the key is is it a truly independent report, and if the drafters of the report are compromised by other interests, that always leaves the report open to criticism on that basis.”

A representative for David, who previously pushed back on conclusions of wrongdoing by David based on the report, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article. Meanwhile, David’s mention in the AG report continues to leave the nation’s leading LGBTQ group in turmoil. Amid reports staffers have called on David to resign, lesbian tennis legend Martina Navratilova — who has previously come under fire for views against transgender women in sports — publicly called for David’s resignation in a podcast interview with the progressive news outlet Raw Story.

Last week, David posted to his Twitter account an open letter from “colleagues and friends” in support of him. Days later, the Blade was forwarded an open letter from “Real HRC Staffers” addressing a separate “communication” that went out from other employees calling for David’s resignation. The open letter asserts David is being unfairly maligned and calls for signatures in support of his presidency.

“It is disheartening to see how the leadership of a Black queer man is being criticized by and vilified in the media and within our own organization at a time of racial reckoning in America and globally,” the letter said. “Worse, is to witness the scapegoating of Alphonso and others who are now being made to answer for the behaviors of powerful white men.”

Fissell, meanwhile, told the Blade the Human Rights Campaign would be better suited going elsewhere for a law firm to conduct the investigation if it wanted real answers about its president in the Cuomo affair.

“If they’re truly committed to demonstrating that they want to have an independent investigation, they would find someone else,” Fissell said.

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Illinois

Libs Of TikTok post instigates another round of bomb threats

An all too familiar occurrence an elementary school evacuated for bomb threats after being targeted by Libs of TikTok for a pride flag

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EIM/Los Angeles Blade graphic

By Erin Reed | WASHINGTON – A Highland Park, Illinois, elementary school evacuated its premises and relocated its young students for two consecutive days following bomb threats. This alarming incident came on the heels of the controversial anti-LGBTQ+ account, Libs of TikTok, overseen by Chaya Raichik, showcasing an image of a classroom in the school adorned with a pride flag.

Notably, extremism researchers have previously associated the Libs of TikTok account with real-world violent threats potentially incited by posts to the account. As more schools and businesses face hostility simply for displaying a Pride flag, LGBTQ+ advocates and allies are left questioning why online social media platforms continue to tolerate such virulent hate content.

The Libs of TikTok account is run by Chaya Raichik, who maintained anonymity until December of 2022. In an interview with Tucker Carlson, which she deemed a “face reveal,” she revealed that Governor DeSantis offered her to stay in the Governor’s Mansion guesthouse in order to “provide her safety.” Her account has regularly posted the names of hospitals, schools, and businesses that have LGBTQ+ inclusive initiatives, pride flags, or show support for LGBTQ+ students in any other number of ways.

Such a post was made on September 15 by the account of the interior of a classroom at a Highland Park elementary school which featured a pride flag and general rainbow theme. Her post asked, “Why would an elementary school have a massive progress pride flag hanging above students heads all day?” to which her respondents replied by calling the teacher a groomer and pedophile.

Here is a picture of the post, seen by 584,000 people on Twitter:

Within days, the school began to receive bomb threats, closing it down. Elementary students were evacuated to a nearby location. A message posted to the Highland Park, Illinois Facebook page noted that multiple schools delayed the start of their school days and that further updates would be provided to students. Notably, Highland Park is also the location of a recent mass shooting in 2022.

Message posted to Highland Park Facebook Page, as retrieved by @aridrennen

Raichik has a long history of targeting a location and that location then being the recipient of violent threats. Shortly after her tweets against Boston Children’s Hospital, the hospital began receiving a series of bomb threats, partially shutting it down at times.

In Kiel, Wisconsin, after the account posted tweets targeting a school district there, multiple replies called for violence against the district. The district was then paralyzed for over a month by bomb threats. Similar examples could be seen in Pittsburgh Children’s HospitalDoernbecher Children’s HospitalPhoenix Children’s Hospital, and more.

All in all, the account has been linked to potentially inciting 66 separate threat events, most of which occurred within 5 days of her tweets as of December of 2022.

Anti-LGBTQ+ violent threats have become increasingly frequent in recent months. In California, a shop owner was killed for flying a Pride flag – the account followed and interacted with several anti-LGBTQ+ influencer accounts online.

In Texas, a church that hosted a drag event was firebombed after an anti-LGBTQ+ youtuber visited. In a report released in June, GLAAD had identified 350 anti-LGBTQ+ hate and extremism events across the United States.

Many organizations have called for social media platforms to do better at curtailing hate content. GLAAD’s Social Media Safety Index this year, for instance, reported that all give major platforms were failing at restricting anti-LGBTQ+ hate content, with Twitter scoring the worst. The platform notably dropped protections for transgender people from its harassment policy earlier this year.

Without significant reforms, accounts such as Libs of TikTok are poised to persist in disseminating hate content, ultimately translating to tangible harassment and violence. In just the past week, this account has set its sights on several more schools and libraries for their support of transgender youth, pride displays, and other LGBTQ+-positive measures.

Ironically, these institutions will likely find themselves ramping up security measures to safeguard their students from accounts that purport to act “to protect kids” from LGBTQ+ people.

****************************************************************************

Erin Reed is a transgender woman (she/her pronouns) and researcher who tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world and helps people become better advocates for their queer family, friends, colleagues, and community. Reed also is a social media consultant and public speaker.

Follow her on Twitter (Link)

Website here: https://www.erininthemorning.com/

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The preceding article was first published at Erin In The Morning and is republished with permission.

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Federal Government

Barbara Lee: PEPFAR is ‘more in peril’ than ever

Congress has yet to reauthorize funding for Bush-era HIV/AIDS program

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) speaks about the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — California Congresswoman Barbara Lee on Sept. 22 said the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is “more in peril” now than at any point since its launch two decades ago.

“This program is reauthorized every five years, but it’s always on a bipartisan basis,” said Lee during a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference that took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C. “As we approach the benchmark of an AIDS-free generation by 2023, it is unfortunately more in peril now than ever before.”

Then-President George W. Bush in 2003 signed legislation that created PEPFAR.

Lee noted PEPFAR as of 2020 has provided nearly $100 billion in “cumulative funding for HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention and research.” She said PEPFAR is the largest global funding program for a single disease outside of COVID-19.

New PEPFAR strategy includes ‘targeted programming’ for marginalized groups

The panel took place amid the continued push for Congress to reauthorize PEPFAR for another five years. The federal government will shut down on Oct. 1 if Congress does not pass an appropriations bill.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken last December at a World AIDS Day event in D.C. acknowledged HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ and intersex people and other marginalized groups. A new PEPFAR strategy the Biden-Harris administration announced that seeks to “fill those gaps” over the next five years includes the following points:

• Targeted programming to help reduce inequalities among LGBTQ+ and intersex people, women and girls and other marginalized groups

• Partnerships with local organizations to help reach “hard-to-reach” communities.

• Economic development and increased access to financial markets to allow countries to manufacture their own antiretroviral drugs, tests and personal protective gear to give them “the capacity to meet their own challenges so that they’re not dependent on anyone else.”

The Family Research Council Action in an email to supporters urged them to tell Congress to “stop Biden from hijacking PEPFAR to promote its radical social policies overseas.” Family Watch International has said PEPFAR “has been hijacked to advance a radical sexual agenda.”

“Please sign the petition to tell the U.S. Congress to ensure that no U.S. funds go to organizations that promote abortion, LGBT ideology, or ‘comprehensive sexuality education,'” said the group in an email to its supporters. 

A group of lawmakers and religious leaders from Kenya and other African countries in a letter they wrote to members of Congress in June said PEPFAR, in their view, no longer serves its original purposes of fighting HIV/AIDS because it champions homosexuality and abortion.

“We wrote that letter to the U.S. Congress not to stop PEPFAR funding to Kenya, but to demand the initiative to revert to its original mission without conditioning it to also supporting LGBTQ as human rights,” it reads.

Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ+ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy.

American officials earlier this year postponed a meeting on PEPFAR’s work in Uganda in order to assess the potential impact the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act will have on it. The law, which Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed on May 29, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

Biden in his U.N. General Assembly speech last week noted LGBTQ+ and intersex rights and highlighted PEPFAR. Family Watch International in its email to supporters included a link to the letter from the African lawmakers and religious leaders.  

The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated both the FRC and Family Watch International as anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups.

“[PEPFAR is] not about abortions,” said Lee.

HIV/AIDS activists protest inside house speaker kevin mccarthy (r-calif.)’s office in d.c. on sept. 11, 2023. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power during the panel referenced Bush’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post that urged lawmakers to reauthorize PEPFAR.

“The way he put it is no program is more pro-life [than] one that has saved more than 25 million lives,” said Power.

Power referenced the “manufactured controversy that is making it difficult to get this reauthorization.” U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Knengasong said a failure to reauthorize PEPFAR would weaken “our own foreign policy and diplomacy.”

“Once again the United States will be missing in action,” stressed Lee.

Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary for Legislation Melanie Egorin and Kenny Kamson, a Nigerian HIV/AIDS activist, also spoke on the panel that MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated. 

From left: U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Nkengasong and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power discuss the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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National

Writer’s Guild of America & studios have reached a tentative deal

“We are, as of today, suspending WGA picketing. Instead, if you are able, we encourage you to join the SAG-AFTRA picket lines this week”

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WGA/Los Angeles Blade graphic

HOLLYWOOD – The end may be in sight for the strike by The Writers Guild of America that has lasted more than 140 days and put thousands of people out of work. On Sunday, the WGA Negotiating Committee said that the union and the major Hollywood studios have reached a tentative deal for a new contract, although the deal must still be ratified by the union’s 11,500 members.

In a statement released by the WGA Sunday evening the WGA Negotiating Committee leadership wrote:

“We have reached a tentative agreement on a new 2023 MBA, which is to say an agreement in principle on all deal points, subject to drafting final contract language. 

What we have won in this contract—most particularly, everything we have gained since May 2nd—is due to the willingness of this membership to exercise its power, to demonstrate its solidarity, to walk side-by-side, to endure the pain and uncertainty of the past 146 days. It is the leverage generated by your strike, in concert with the extraordinary support of our union siblings, that finally brought the companies back to the table to make a deal. […]

What remains now is for our staff to make sure everything we have agreed to is codified in final contract language. And though we are eager to share the details of what has been achieved with you, we cannot do that until the last “i” is dotted. To do so would complicate our ability to finish the job. So, as you have been patient with us before, we ask you to be patient again—one last time. 

Once the Memorandum of Agreement with the AMPTP is complete, the Negotiating Committee will vote on whether to recommend the agreement and send it on to the WGAW Board and WGAE Council for approval. The Board and Council will then vote on whether to authorize a contract ratification vote by the membership. 

If that authorization is approved, the Board and Council would also vote on whether to lift the restraining order and end the strike at a certain date and time (to be determined) pending ratification. This would allow writers to return to work during the ratification vote, but would not affect the membership’s right to make a final determination on contract approval. 

Immediately after those leadership votes, which are tentatively scheduled for Tuesday if the language is settled, we will provide a comprehensive summary of the deal points and the Memorandum of Agreement. We will also convene meetings where members will have the opportunity to learn more about and assess the deal before voting on ratification. 

To be clear, no one is to return to work until specifically authorized to by the Guild. We are still on strike until then. But we are, as of today, suspending WGA picketing. Instead, if you are able, we encourage you to join the SAG-AFTRA picket lines this week.”

 

Governor Gavin Newsom issued the following statement in response to the tentative agreement reached by the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers:

“California’s entertainment industry would not be what it is today without our world class writers. For over 100 days, 11,000 writers went on strike over existential threats to their careers and livelihoods — expressing real concerns over the stress and anxiety workers are feeling. I am grateful that the two sides have come together to reach an agreement that benefits all parties involved, and can put a major piece of California’s economy back to work.”

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Connecticut

Connecticut police investigate bomb threat to Pride Center

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Gay Pride Center on Orange Street in New Haven, Connecticut. (Screenshot/YouTube Fox 61.com)

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — New Haven Police in this coastal city on Long Island Sound, home to the Ivy League Yale University, are investigating a bomb threat made to the New Haven Pride Center.

According to local Fox affiliate Fox61/WTIC-TV, the bomb threat came via email and threatened that an explosive device would be activated at 1:00 pm at the Center located in the downtown area in the hundredth block of Orange Street.

As a precaution multiple downtown streets were closed and patients from the DaVita Dialysis Center located on the floor above the LGBTQ Center were evacuated via ambulances that had responded.

Police, after determining there was not an explosive device by NHPD Hazardous Device Team deemed the building safe as of 1:45 p.m., but are continuing their investigation into the incident.

In a phone call with Fox 61, Juancarlos Soto, the LGBTQ+ Center’s executive director said:

“I mean, we’re we’re a little shaky. I think regardless of whenever you get something like this, it shakes you a little bit and reminds you that that, you know, LGBTQ people are under attack across our entire country. There’s a race and LGBTQ rhetoric and rhetoric and violence against LGBTQ people. You know, I think it also reminds us of the importance of safe spaces, you know, and how even in 2023, we have so much to fight still for our community and make sure that we are safe.”

“I think it has the opposite effect of what this person intended, right. Because it bolsters your your your strength to continue to fight for a community. And it it puts us on the path to to to just keep going, Soto added. 

West Hartford Pride released a statement afterwards in solitary with the New Haven center:

“West Hartford Pride stands strongly with our friends at the New Haven Pride Center, its staff, and the New Haven Community. At West Hartford Pride, our motto is STAND AGAINST HATE. When one of us is attacked, we are all attacked.

This despicable act is one of hate and cowardice. We applaud the New Haven Pride Center for their quick actions to keep everyone safe, and their commitment to continuing to serve their community. We look forward to standing with the New Haven Pride Center at a rescheduled Pride Celebration. When we stand together in defiance of hatred and bigotry, we are stronger.”

New Haven police investigate bomb threat made to Gay Pride Center:

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New York

NYPD: Brooklyn library’s Drag Story Hour moved after bomb threat

“These are children, and children just want to hear stories … It’s a shame how somebody just ruined it and threatened violence”

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The Cortelyou branch of Brooklyn Public Library at 1305 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn, New York. (Photo Credit: Brooklyn Public Library)

BROOKLYN – The New York Police Department confirmed that a bomb threat was emailed to the Cortelyou branch of Brooklyn Public Library forcing the staff and patrons to relocate the scheduled Drag Queen Story Hour just prior to the event Saturday morning.

The NYPD confirmed Saturday afternoon that an email addressed to a library staff person sourced to an unknown person with a Buffalo, New York origin threatened that a bomb would detonate at 11:30 a.m., and according to a NYPD spokesperson a male caller also phoned 911 about the threat.

The NYPD’s canine and emergency services units briefly evacuated the branch and did a search but did not locate a device or anything suspicious. “Officers responded to a bomb threat. There were no devices located,” said the spokesperson.

The New York Post reported the drag queens moved their event to a Connecticut Muffin coffee shop a block away after convincing staffers there to help. About seven children and parents attended.

“It’s a shame, and it’s something that’s extremely dangerous,” fumed a parent of a 2-year-old girl who sat in on the reading.

“These are children, and children just want to hear stories … It’s a shame how somebody just ruined it and threatened violence.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge overturns Calif. high capacity magazines ban again

There are over 110 gun deaths daily & nearly 41,000 per year in the U.S. Guns are the leading cause of death of children & adolescents

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Gun ammunition magazines with capacity of holding more than 10 rounds. (Screenshot/YouTube)

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – California Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta reacted sharply to a ruling Friday by a federal judge blocking California’s ban on gun ammunition magazines with capacity of holding more than 10 rounds.

U.S. District Court Judge Roger Benitez, a President George W. Bush appointee on the bench of the Southern District of California wrote: “This case is about a California state law that makes it a crime to keep and bear common firearm magazines typically possessed for lawful purposes. Based on the text, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment, this law is clearly unconstitutional.”

This is not the only time Benitez has ruled against the ban by the state on high capacity magazines. The Sacramento Bee noted that Benitez struck down California’s large-capacity ammunition ban originally in 2019 — when the case was still called Duncan v. Becerra, for then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra — only for the case to make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which kicked it back down for further proceedings.

In his opinion today Benitez wrote, “The fact that there are so many different numerical limits demonstrates the arbitrary nature of magazine capacity limits,” referring to similar bans in other states but with differing numbers of rounds limited.

He also noted several cases where he said ammunition capacity “was a matter of life and death for lawful gun owners.”

“There have been, and there will be, times where many more than 10 rounds are needed to stop attackers. […] Woe to the victim who runs out of ammunition before armed attackers do. The police will mark the ground with chalk, count the number of shell casings, and file the report.”

In a statement released by his office, Newsom took aim at the ruling:

“Unsurprisingly, Judge Benitez chose to issue this radical decision on the same day President Biden announced his new Office of Gun Violence Prevention. As a reminder, this is the same judge who used Gun Violence Awareness Day to strike down California’s assault weapons ban — comparing the AR-15 to a Swiss Army knife. 

“Judge Benitez is not even pretending anymore. This is politics, pure and simple.  

“It’s time to wake up. Unless we enshrine a Right to Safety in the Constitution, we are at the mercy of ideologues like Judge Benitez. All of our gun safety laws that are proven to save lives are at risk. It doesn’t matter what laws we pass. It doesn’t matter what the voters decide. Concealed carry. Banning weapons of war. Reasonable waiting periods. Background checks. The idealogues are coming for all of them. 

“This is exactly why I’ve called for a Constitutional amendment, and this is why I’ll keep fighting to defend our right to protect ourselves from gun violence.”

California Attorney General Rob Bonta immediately filed a notice of appeal to overturn the decision. The notice of appeal, filed just hours after Benitez issued his decision and temporary stay, is the first step toward seeking a further stay of the decision by the Ninth Circuit pending appeal. 

“In the past half-century, large-capacity magazines have been used in about three-quarters of gun massacres with 10 or more deaths and in 100 percent of gun massacres with 20 or more deaths,” said Attorney General Bonta. “We will continue to fight for our authority to keep Californians safe from weapon enhancements designed to cause mass casualties. The Supreme Court was clear that Bruen did not create a regulatory straitjacket for states — and we believe that the district court got this wrong. We will move quickly to correct this incredibly dangerous mistake. We will not stop in our efforts to protect the safety of communities and Californians’ rights to go about their business without fear of becoming victims of gun violence, while at the same time respecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners.”

Gun violence remains a growing threat to public safety throughout the nation. Mass shootings are on the rise throughout the country and frequently feature large-capacity magazines, causing more deaths and injuries.

On average, there are over 110 gun deaths each day and nearly 41,000 each year in the U.S. Guns are the leading cause of death among children and adolescents, with U.S. children being more likely to die from gun violence than in any other comparable country. 

In 2021, California was ranked as the #1 state for gun safety by Giffords Law Center, and the state saw a 37% lower gun death rate than the national average. According to the CDC, California’s gun death rate was the 44th lowest in the nation and the gun death rate for children is 58% lower than the national average.

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The White House

White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention launched

The administration said its aim is to implement and expand the provisions of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act

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President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris listen as Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-FL10) addresses an audience in the Rose Garden including federal, state and local officials, survivors and family members, and gun violence prevention advocates. (Photo Credit: Brandon Wolf)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) addressed an audience from the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday to honor the establishment of a first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

In a press release Thursday announcing the move, the administration said its aim is to implement and expand the provisions of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act along with those contained in the president’s executive orders targeting issues of gun violence.

Additionally, Biden explained in his remarks, the office will coordinate more support for survivors, families and communities, including mental health services and financial aid; identify new avenues for executive action; and “expand our coalition of partners in states and cities across America” given the need for legislative solutions on the local and state level.

Harris, who will oversee the office, pledged to “use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors and advocates and students and teachers and elected leaders to save lives and fight for the right of all people to be safe from fear and to be able to live a life where they understand that they are supported in that desire and that right.”

The vice president noted her close experiences with the devastating consequences of gun violence in her work as a federal prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and in her current role.

Biden’s comments also included highlights of his administration’s accomplishments combatting gun violence and a call to action for Congress to do more. “It’s time again to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines,” he told lawmakers.

The president also credited the the work of advocates including those who were gathered at the White House on Friday: “all of you here today, all across the country, survivors, families, advocates — especially young people who demand our nation do better to protect all; who protested, organized, voted, and ran for office, and, yes, marched for their lives.”

Taking the stage before introducing Biden, Frost noted that “Right before I was elected to Congress, I served as the national organizing director for March for Our Lives, a movement that inspired young people across the nation to demand safe communities.”

“The president understands that this issue especially for young people, especially for marginalized communities, is a matter of survival,” the congressman said. And the formation of this office, “comes from Pulse to Parkland,” he said, adding, “we fight because we love.”

Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which was America’s second deadliest mass shooting and the deadliest against the LGBTQ community, shared a comment with the Washington Blade after Friday’s ceremony:

“Seven years ago, when my best friends and 47 others were murdered at our safe place — Pulse Nightclub — we promised to honor them with action. This is what that looks like. This deep investment in the fight to end gun violence matters, and I cannot wait to see Vice President Harris lead these efforts. We can blaze the path toward a future free of gun violence. And today marked an important step in that direction.”

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Virginia

Parents sue Virginia Beach school board over trans policy

Two parents are seeking to force schools to adopt Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s new policies for treatment of trans students

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Virginia Beach City Public Schools EV school bus fleet. (Photo Credit: Virginia Beach City Public Schools)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Two parents in Virginia Beach have filed a lawsuit that seeks to force the city’s school district to implement the state’s new guidelines for transgender and nonbinary students.

NBC Washington on Friday reported the conservative-leaning Cooper and Kirk, a D.C.-based law firm, filed the lawsuit in Virginia Beach Circuit Court.

The Virginia Department of Education in July announced the new guidelines for which Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin asked. Arlington County Public Schools, Fairfax County Public Schools and Prince William County Schools are among the school districts that have refused to implement them. 

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal Judge says drag is ‘vulgar & lewd’ ‘sexualized conduct’

Anti-LGBTQ activists perpetuate lies that LGBTQ community targets children for sexual abuse by bringing them to drag performances

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Marvin Jones Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse, Amarillo, Texas (Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

AMARILLO, Texas — Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a ruling Thursday denying relief to a group of university students who sought to host a drag show over the objections of their school’s president.

A Trump appointed jurist with deep ties to anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion conservative legal activists, Kacsmaryk argued that drag performances probably do not constitute speech protected by the First Amendment.

As Slate Senior Writer Mark Joseph Stern wrote on X, this conclusion “conflicts with decisions from Texas, Florida, Tennessee, and Montana which held that drag is constitutionally protected expression.”

“It also bristles with undisguised hostility toward LGBTQ people,” he added.

Kacsmaryk’s 26-page decision describes drag performances as lewd and licentious, obscene and sexually prurient, despite arguments the plaintiffs had presented about the social, political, and artistic merit of this art form.

As the Human Rights Campaign recently wrote, “drag artists and the spaces that host their performances have long served as a communal environment for queer expression.”

The group added, “It is a form of art and entertainment, but, historically, the performances haven’t only served to entertain, but also to truly advance the empowerment and visibility of LGBTQ+ people.”

Nevertheless, anti-LGBTQ conservative activists and organizations have perpetuated conspiracy theories about members of the community targeting children for sexual abuse including by bringing them to drag performances.

Among these is a group with ties to the Proud Boys that was cited by Kacsmaryk in his ruling: Gays Against Groomers, an anti-LGBTQ and anti-transgender extremist group, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Ohio

Ohio school superintendent orders LGBTQ+ mural painted over

Debate over discussions about race, inclusion, & LGBTQ+ issues in Forest Hills Schools was reignited by the decision to paint over the mural

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The student created LGBTQ+ affirming mural inside Nagel Middle School before it was painted over. ( Photo Credit: Forest Hills Schools board member Leslie Rasmussen)

Cincinnati, Ohio – The Forest Hills Schools Board of Education meeting erupted in controversy Wednesday night as parents and community members reacted to the decision to paint over a student-created LGBTQ+ affirming mural at the start of the school year.

Superintendent Larry Hook, who was targeted by audience members during the public comments session, remained silent and did not respond to the criticism directly.

Cincinnati Public Radio station WVXU 91.7 FM reported that debate over discussions about race, inclusion, and LGBTQ+ issues in Forest Hills Schools was reignited by Hook’s decision to paint over the student-created mural, which depicted the hands of people of different races signaling love and solidarity surrounded by symbols of equality and acceptance of various sexual orientations.

According to WVXU 91.7 FM, dozens showed up to Wednesday’s meeting holding signs of the mural. Forest Hills parent Jeff Nye addressed Hook directly, calling his response to the initial backlash childish.

“A 7th or 8th grade kid — 12- or 13-years-old — damaged that banner and that’s unacceptable and should be punished,” Nye said. “But before that happened, you had an opportunity to reflect and take action, value the feedback you received, to lead by example, to lead with humility, and say ‘I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have put it there,’ but you didn’t. You doubled down. You didn’t act like leader. You acted like a kid. You took your ball and you went home and I’m incredibly disappointed.”

High school student Norah Zellen also had strong words for Hook, saying that permanently covering the mural will have a more negative impact on students than district leaders thought.

“The mural exhibited a safe and inclusive learning environment, yet it was painted over. This action shows thoughtlessness, a lack of authenticity, and calls into question if the school board and superintendent want some students erased,” Zellen told Hook.

The Superintendent defended his decision remarking:

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who were very upset that it was there,” he said. “So, it’s kind of created this battle that shouldn’t even be in schools. We need to focus on our education. We need to focus on what’s important. That doesn’t mean we marginalize anybody.”

WVXU 91.7 FM also reported that a small number of adults spoke out during public comment defending Hook’s decision. One attendee, who took offense to parents and students supporting the mural, was removed by law enforcement after getting into a physical interaction with another audience member.

Forest Hills School District Board of Education Meeting 9-20-23:

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