- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

Jan. 21

Tampa (Fla.) Tribune on Egypt has yet to earn our support:

The Obama administration is reportedly poised to ask Congress to exempt Egypt from the law that requires ending financial aid (in the case of Egypt’s military, that is $1 billion annually) in the event of a military coup, and that would be a misreading of the situation.

Any support for such an exemption would have to be based on the belief that Egypt’s recent referendum, which passed with overwhelming approval by voters, means the military leadership is actually practicing and embracing democracy.

The evidence, unfortunately, points in the opposite direction.

The most recent example is the arrest Sunday of a prominent intellectual who is accused of daring to criticize his nation’s judiciary on Twitter. In Egypt, criticizing judges and the court system has long been forbidden, and apparently it remains so. How could such an impediment to free speech possibly advance democracy?

Three of these organizations were financed by the United States government and were promoting democracy. But the court held that their true objective was to “undermine Egypt’s national security and lay out a sectarian, political map that serves United States and Israeli interests.”

Egypt’s opposition media have been shut down, and three journalists for Al Jazeera have been imprisoned without any charges. Meanwhile, the constitution adopted last weekend exempts the army, police and intelligence services from civilian control while allowing these very same arms of the government to prosecute anyone they deem threatening in military courts.

The great promise of 2011’s Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia and spread very quickly to Egypt, took its time before reaching its goals in the former but has not even come close to bringing about the kind of pluralistic, democratic government so many Egyptians had in mind when they demonstrated against the stifling regime of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

But as bad as Mubarak may have been, he was at least a staunch ally of the United States, particularly on the issue of Israel’s right to exist. The government now calling the shots in Cairo is no such ally, and pouring American dollars into its treasury won’t change that unhappy truth.




Jan. 21

Miami Herald on Congress must weigh in to ensure significant reform:

Three takeaways from President Obama’s speech on surveillance: (1) Unexamined expansion of NSA programs has been halted, at least for now. (2) The president favors reform of existing programs, not eliminating them. (3) There’s a heck of a fight ahead in Congress to find a proper balance between security and privacy.

The first point may be the most important. The debate over government surveillance and the public’s reaction - too much spying, not enough oversight - is a healthy sign that Americans value their civil liberties and want to place limits on intrusion by an unchecked bureaucracy. The point of the president’s speech on Friday was to say: Message received.

In the panic after 9/11, the warnings of civil libertarians that privacy rights were being trampled fell on deaf ears in Washington. The excesses of the Patriot Act, including so-called National Security Letters that demand that information be turned over without a subpoena -which the Herald opposes - were enacted into law. Some provisions have been used to justify some of the most worrisome disclosures about government spying, including the wholesale collection of individual phone records and emails.

With all this in mind, Mr. Obama tried to split the baby in half, retaining the post-9/11 programs but ordering greater oversight and scrutiny.

He would keep the metadata, but, in the long run, it should be stored by private companies, like telecommunications firms. Analysts who want to check phone records will require permission from the federal surveillance court in each instance. The FISA court should disclose decisions affecting privacy rights.

These are all sensible changes, as is the promise that the phones of allied leaders won’t be tapped - although we’d feel more sanguine if foreign leaders offered reciprocal promises to rein in their own cyber-snoops, both government and freelance.

Ultimately, Congress will have to decide how much intrusion is too much and enact reforms rather than allow this president to impose rules that he or a successor can later quietly roll back.

Expect pushback from the national-security bureaucracy. The NSA wants to keep its phone records. One FISA court judge has already declared that privacy advocates aren’t wanted or needed in the court’s secret debates. Government investigators hate the idea of requiring case-by-case warrants to eavesdrop on phone content.

The ball is in Congress’ court.




Jan. 21

Gainesville (Fla.) Sun on restoring rights:

More than 1 million Floridians convicted of felonies remain second-class citizens long after completing their sentences. They’re unable to vote, serve on a jury or hold public office.

Florida is one of just three states that lack a simple, automatic path to civil rights restoration for former offenders. In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet imposed new restrictions making it even more difficult for ex-felons to restore their rights.

The rules force individuals to wait as long as 13 years after completing their sentences to get a hearing on having their rights restored. Even then, they have a less than 1 percent chance of having their rights restored based on current patterns, according to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

The coalition and clergy members gathered Friday outside the Florida Attorney General’s Tampa office to bring attention to the issue. With the nation just marking the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it’s worth noting that black voters are disproportionately disenfranchised in Florida.

Nearly one-quarter of the state’s black voting-age population was barred from casting ballots in 2010 due to a felony conviction, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project. The Legislature’s black caucus cancelled a meeting with Scott on Wednesday, King’s actual birthday, due to the governor’s opposition to rights restoration and other caucus priorities.

Reintegrating former felons into society helps them become productive members rather than repeat offenders. Scott has made some progress on the issue, signing a measure in 2011 that broke the link between rights restoration and eligibility for business and professional licenses.

Florida is responsible for about one quarter of the ex-felons across the U.S. who are barred from voting. It’s time for the state to join most of the nation in making restoration of civil rights automatic for former offenders.



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