Abdi Soltani: “ACLU in 2018: Defending Constitutional Rights” | Talks at Google
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Abdi Soltani: “ACLU in 2018: Defending Constitutional Rights” | Talks at Google

[GOOGLE LOGO MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: Thank you. [APPLAUSE] So I’m going to open
the conversation today with the 14th Amendment. 150 years ago, 14th
Amendment was passed. And we are in a juncture
that some people are asking, how relevant is
14th Amendment to our situation today? So I wanted to ask
you, how far have we come since the 14th Amendment
then to [? effect ?] and what else– how much do we have to go? How many areas do we
need to invest and then push for progress? ABDI SOLTANI: Great. Well, thank you so much
for having me here– and for the people in
the room and anyone who’s watching the live stream
or listening to this later. You know, the Constitution
of the United States is one of the most
powerful legal documents, one of the most durable. It has qualities
that make it last. But it also has the
ability to change. And the way that the
Constitution changes– you know, one is through
the formal amendments. But it’s also in the
way that the people embrace the Constitution–
whether we defend it, whether we stand for it, whether
we apply its principles fully, or whether we step back from
it and let it be taken from us or used against people’s rights. So the original Constitution
of the United States basically created the separation
of powers between the Executive Branch, Congress, the
Judiciary, and then the basic structure of
federalism with the states. But the Constitution originally
had very few protections for individual
rights, and those were enacted through the
first 10 Amendments to the Constitution, which
we call the Bill of Rights. So when you think about the
Constitutional amendments, I think the Second Amendment
is obviously very famous. It’s always in the news. People can associate
the Second Amendment with whether it’s collective
or an individual right to bear arms. The First Amendment also gets
a certain amount of attention, and rightly so. When people ask me what’s
my favorite Amendment of the Constitution,
though, my answer is the 14th Amendment
of the Constitution. The 14th Amendment
does a few things. First, it says that all
persons born or naturalized in the United States and
subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the
United States and of the state wherein they reside. That’s a profoundly
important sentence. What it says is that there’s
two paths to citizenship– citizenship by birth
and citizenship through the naturalization
or immigration process. The reason the 14th Amendment
is my favorite amendment is that I am a
citizen because of it. I was born in this country– when my parents are
both from Iran– I was born in this
country in 1973. And that’s what
made me a citizen. Because of the fact that
my parents were Iranians, I associate my citizenship very
squarely with this Amendment of the Constitution. But every one of us who is a
citizen, every last person who is a citizen, it’s
either by birth or through naturalization. So the 14th Amendment,
that’s one core plank. After that, it goes on
to say that no state can deny the privileges or
immunities of a citizen of the United States. And then, from there
it goes on, and it changes from talking
about citizen to person. And it says that no state can
deny to any person due process under the law. And that no state can
deny to any person the equal protection of the law. So the people who wrote
the 14th Amendment did so in the aftermath
of abolishing slavery in the United States. The 13th Amendment that
immediately precedes the 14th abolished slavery. And at that time, the
thought was, well, if you abolished slavery,
well, then, by definition, the people who are
freed from slavery should be treated equally as
human beings and as citizens. But immediately, the states
that had slavery, as well as the northern states,
set about a set of policies to discriminate against
free black people. And so the 14th Amendment
was necessary to make clear that every person born here is a
citizen, that no state can take away the rights of a citizen. But then they switched from
talking only about citizens to also talking
about persons, when they said that every
person is entitled to due process and
equal protection. So why would they,
in crafting Section I of the 14th Amendment, talk
about citizens and persons so clearly? It’s because they
wanted the Constitution to be abundantly clear– that it applies on
the fundamental rights of due process and equality
to every person, citizen and non-citizen alike. So I love the 14th Amendment. I love it because it was the
path to my own citizenship, but also because it marks
this country’s progress in the abolition of slavery
and the extension of rights to every citizen
and to every person. SPEAKER 1: Awesome, thanks. And I think, from
this, we can probably go to the question that
is in many people’s minds these days– equal protection
for all persons. I want to move to
the travel ban that affected a specific
group of citizens, basically, with
certain restrictions and limitations on movement. Is that something that we
can relate to 14th Amendment? Do people, visitors from
outside the United States, are they considered, basically,
subjects to 14th Amendment? ABDI SOLTANI: So being
Iranian-American and working at the ACLU, the whole run up
in the presidential election with the language of the Muslim
ban was quite alarming to me, to other people
who are Muslim or from Muslim-majority countries. But I think it was
alarming to everyone because our country has a
tradition of religious liberty and religious freedom. And the statements
of candidate Trump were incredibly toxic in
terms of speaking those words about making people of a
religion a suspect class or a suspect group. Already, his statements
as a candidate had a horrible effect,
because they gave voice and they legitimized the
idea that we can discriminate based on religion. Within days of
becoming president, I think it’s one of his
very first executive actions was the first Muslim ban. So in the design of our
system of government, preceding the 14th Amendment
in the Bill of Rights is also the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment is the
same due process clause that says that before a person
can have their life, liberty, or property taken, there has
to be due process of law. Due process means
that there has to be a rational basis to the
decision of the government. There has to be notice. There has to be a hearing. Usually, in the
criminal context, that means there
has to be evidence, that you have an
opportunity to respond to the evidence, et cetera. Due process is fundamental
to the rule of law, and by extension, the equal
protection under the law. So the 14th Amendment–
we don’t usually have to go to the
14th Amendment. We can often go straight
to the Fifth Amendment, where it deals with the
federal government itself. And we also have the
nation’s immigration laws that are enacted by
statute that you can also protect someone’s rights. So why was the Muslim
ban 1.0 so offensive to our constitutional rights? First of all, it was the
embodiment of the statements that Donald Trump
had made that he wants to ban the entry of
Muslims into the United States. It was the way in which his
government officials could give life to that promise. It wasn’t every Muslim
from every country. They had to cabinet to
what his people thought they could pull off. What was also so
offensive about it was that there are
people who were literally on airplanes, people who had a
visa in their hand, people who were landing on the
shores or in the airplanes or airports of the United States
who were being denied entry or who were being turned away. More than that,
there are people who are green card holders who are
being intimidated into giving up their green cards. None of that had any
due process of law. What I love about the court
decisions of those days is that it said
that even if you’re a person who has
not yet even set foot on United States soil– that you had gone to a
consulate in Dubai or in Turkey and had gotten a
visa, and you’re in an airplane coming
to the United States– you’re still protected by the
Constitution of the United States. You might not be a citizen. You might not be a legal
permanent resident. But even as a visa
holder, you’re entitled to the due process and
equal protection of the law. But what I was the most
inspired by at the time of the first Muslim
ban was not just that the ACLU
lawyers went to court or that the judges made
the right decisions. It was the way that the
American people responded. In 1941, after the
attack on Pearl Harbor and the executive order for
Japanese-American internment, the ACLU here in the
Bay Area, the ACLU of Northern California, we
represented Fred Korematsu in a case that went to
the US Supreme Court. At that time, the
number of people who spoke up on the side
of Japanese-Americans was extremely few. But when the Muslim
ban was announced, the American people responded
and rallied around– not just the people who were
being detained at airports or who were being turned away– but they rallied
around the core values of this country of
religious liberty, of welcoming people to
our shore as immigrants, and all of those
traditions that have made us proud to be Americans. SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE]. But if we want to go back to
the 14th Amendment itself, are there areas that the
14th Amendment is under– are there areas
where we can improve? Where are the places where
14th Amendment is not being completely followed
or observed that we think we have to invest on? ABDI SOLTANI: So the
reason, this year, I’m speaking even more about the
14th Amendment is that this is the 150th anniversary
of the ratification of the 14th Amendment. It was adopted in
1868, just a few years after the end of the Civil War. And over the course
of this 150 years where we’ve had
the 14th Amendment, it’s remarkable to really
look at that history. In the 10 years after
the abolition of slavery is this period called
Reconstruction, in which the United States made
incredible progress in advancing the right
to vote, education, economic opportunity for and
by the newly freed slaves. The way in which the
African-American community and their allies among many
other Americans– including, at the time, the radical
Republicans in Congress– were able to seize that moment
and make very fast progress is one of the most inspiring
periods in American history. I would argue that the period
from the abolition of slavery, that first decade– more was done to advance
liberty than even the first American Revolution. To go from the
condition of slavery to the gains of
the Reconstruction is the farthest distance in
the advancement of liberty in American history, full stop. The period of the American
Revolution initially, with the Constitution,
is remarkably important. But the American Revolution
and the original Constitution also strengthened the
institution and the law on the side of slavery. It was written into
the Constitution. It took the Civil War and
the Reconstruction movement to break down the
way in which slavery was written into
our Constitution and make those advances. That period of 10 years of
Reconstruction’s progress came to a very
rapid halt and was replaced by a very long
period of Jim Crow– is the term for
legalized segregation. That segregation included the
force and power of state laws, of federal laws. It also included
horribly unjust decisions of the Supreme Court
of the United States in a series of
decisions that took back many of the gains of
the 14th Amendment. It was also backed by violence– through widespread violence,
fear and intimidation against black people,
as well as whites who were involved in
voter registration or on the side of
equality, as well. Although the magnitude
of the attack was most pronounced against
African-Americans. That period of Jim Crow,
or legalized segregation, lasted for a very long
time until the Civil Rights movement. So I think we have to look
at the long arc of the United States. The American Revolution,
the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights– they are profoundly
important advances for human liberty and
equality, the struggle to abolish slavery, the
period of Reconstruction. The movement to secure the
right to vote for women– it’s one of the longest
movements if you look at the duration of time that
it took from the time that we secured the 15th Amendment,
which protects the right to vote regardless of race–
the 15th Amendment was one of the three
post-slavery amendments– that was adopted in 1870. It took another 50
years, until 1920, when the 19th Amendment
protected the right to vote regardless of sex. So I think we have to
take a bit of a long view of American history. We are in a period where a
lot of fundamental rights are under attack. We’ve been through that before. And the only way we’ve
gotten through it is by every person standing
up on the side of equality and freedom and justice
and using their voice for those enduring values. SPEAKER 1: Thank you so much. Now going back to the discussion
that we started on travel ban, and later on, I guess,
family separation falls into the same category,
we saw extreme support from people who thought
that this is unjust. This shouldn’t be happening. People are going to
airport, very heartwarming. Although the family
separation issue is ongoing, we just recently heard that
another 1,500 cases of kids that were put under care,
as their cases are missing, and they cannot be
tracked, and so on. So that issue is ongoing. But the point that
I want to get to is that there was this
political atmosphere that allowed these two rather
cruel acts to go into effect. A few years ago, like,
probably, five, 10 years ago, it would have been unimaginable,
things like this happening. Like, singling out
Muslims, or separating children from their families in
the way it happened and so on. What happened in our
political atmosphere that allowed for things like
this to actually happen in the first place? So what was the root cause,
and how can we prevent it? How can we address the root
causes of this situation, of anything like this
being even accepted? ABDI SOLTANI: You know, I think
that there’s maybe, like– I’m going to simplify
this a little bit, but maybe two
categories of people. There’s the category
of people who after Trump won, woke up
and were kind of shocked that this could happen. You know, like, how
is it even possible that a person who says
the things they do could win the election? And then there’s
a second category of people who’ve been actually
dealing with and facing pretty deep-seated
discrimination in the United States that has
had very deep roots and for whom this was
actually the manifestation of that exact existing
set of problems. I think whichever
way one looks at it, the current situation,
in terms of the policies of this administration,
are at a different level in terms of their
cruelty, in terms of how patently they are
designed to carry out a policy of exclusion. Going back to the
14th Amendment, of which I’m very fond– you know the 14th Amendment
is a chain of words that says all persons born
or naturalized in the United States and subject to the
jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States
and of the state wherein they reside. This sentence represents a
path from person to citizen. And I think that we have
to be very clear eyed, that the totality
of the policies of the current administration
is to stop every possible point in that path. So it includes the
mass deportation of undocumented immigrants
without due process. It includes reducing
dramatically the number of refugees that the
United States will permit to come to the country. A new policy that we have seen
through leaked news reports is this idea of public charge. Historically, the United
States would deny a path to citizenship for a person
who was institutionalized in the care of the government. The idea was that you
have to be somewhat self-sufficient to be able to
get through the immigration process. They now want to
change that definition to include just
about anybody who has received any form of
services from the government. So that’s another
attempt to limit that path to legal immigration. So I think that that’s a major
cumulative set of policies that’s designed to keep the
United States demographically from changing and its intended
purpose is to keep people out– and very much from Latin
America, Central America, Africa, Asia, et cetera. The idea of family– chain migration, which
they are also focusing on, has been the main vehicle
through which Asian-Americans have immigrated to
the United States. There’s really nobody who
is immune to these policies of exclusion. At the same time,
there’s a set of policies that are aimed at
the rules of the game and the way in which power
itself is distributed. So the attack on the right to
vote with the concerted efforts at voter suppression, the
political gerrymandering of districts so that it reduces
the influence of each voter in their state or federal
government, the inclusion of the question about
citizenship in the census that has the intended
effect both of intimidating people
from taking the census, but also of creating the record
by which then the government can allocate differentially
certain benefits by population according to citizen,
instead of according to the number of persons. So this is all very serious. And I think that we
have to be involved in speaking up for basic
principles of equality, fairness, and freedom. So the 14th Amendment, you know,
how it itself plays into it is very much at the center
of a lot of these debates. The equal protection
of the law– well, who does that apply to? Those words, equal
protection of the law, did not make it into
the Constitution until the 14th Amendment. Those are the words
based on which we’ve made a lot of the gains
for lesbian and gay couples to have equal access to
marriage or to other government benefits. So our view is that that
principle of equal protection needs to be robust
and inclusive, and it needs to be a force
to combat discrimination. Other people can view equal
protection very narrowly and try to limit
its application. And so that’s going
to be something that gets fought in the Supreme
Court in the coming decades. SPEAKER 1: So I
want to move to some of the topics that are more
related to practical aspects of ACLU’s work. So we’ve heard about People
Power, the grassroots efforts that ACLU is instantiating
around the country. Can you tell us a little
bit about People Power, and what are the ambitions, what
are the goals and objectives– where we are, and
how we can help. ABDI SOLTANI: So I spoke before
about the 14th Amendment. But I also want people to know
I’m a big fan of the First Amendment. And you can think about
the First Amendment as something that’s
a legal protection. But it’s actually an incredibly
beautiful and poetic. And if you haven’t
taken the time to read the First
Amendment recently, I’d really encourage you to. It says that Congress
shall pass no law abridging the freedom of religion
or to establish religion, that Congress can pass no law
limiting the freedom of speech, or the right of the people
to peaceably assemble, or the right and the
freedom of the press. And then the First
Amendment culminates in that the government cannot
limit our right to petition the government for a
redress of grievances. So when you read the First
Amendment as a whole. it begins from the place of our
inner beliefs and our values– both the idea that the
government cannot tell you your religion nor can
the government deny you your religion. And the case on
the First Amendment has evolved to be clear
that religion includes your conscience,
in many instances, like your secular beliefs
that are deeply held. And then from there, it goes
to your freedom of speech and of the press and your
power to assemble as a group, and then petition the government
for a redress of grievances. So it’s a chain
from your beliefs to your relationship
to government. And this is a very simple
point that I’m making. There’s a beautiful book written
called “Madison’s Music.” It’s about looking at
the First Amendment as a holistic principle. So to your question about People
Power, our view at the ACLU is that the kinds of assaults
that we’re facing on our rights are not ones that we can
secure only through the courts. They require the
participation of people in the exercise of
their freedom of speech, in their assembling
together peacefully, and in petitioning
the government. That is the First
Amendment itself. So PeoplePower.org is
a new flank of the ACLU that’s an online platform
that allows people to organize in defense of their liberties,
in defense of equality, in association with the ACLU. And for us, as a long
time legal organization, this was a recognition
that, while we’re going to continue
to go to court, the ultimate defense of
liberty is people’s involvement exercising their
First Amendment rights through organized campaigns like
we offer on PeoplePower.org. SPEAKER 1: Very well. Thank you. So you mentioned
First Amendment. And I want to ask a question
that is a little bit related to First Amendment. So this is a discussion that
these days is being discussed in the media to some extent. Some people are worried
about giving platforms, unintentionally giving
platform, to hateful speech. But this is not the first
time that hateful speech is appearing. The incident of William
Shockley and Yale University from the 70s, that’s
a very famous one. What happened afterwards,
there was this postmortem, this discussion of what
are the boundaries, what are the sort of speech that we
have to allow to take place. And we know that the ACLU
has been on forefront of defending First Amendment. What are your advices? What are your
thoughts or mindset on how we should
set the boundary, where should we draw the line
between speech that is not going to be tolerated
and something that has to be tolerated,
no matter what? Where is the boundary? What is a guideline? ABDI SOLTANI: So this
is a great question, and one that is the subject of
a great deal of legal thought, social science thought, and
people’s own conversations about what is that line. I think the basic
principle of the ACLU is that we do not want to give
that power to the government to decide who can say what
and when they can say it. One of the earliest, and
one of the famous cases that the ACLU brought here
in Northern California, was the case in a poem called
“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. So if anyone goes to North Beach
neighborhood in San Francisco, you’ll come across
City Lights Bookstore. And they were the publisher– with Lawrence Ferlinghetti–
the publisher of Allen Ginsberg, the poet of this beautiful
poem called “Howl.” The poem talks about gay sex. It talks about drug use. It talks about depression. And those things were considered
offensive and obscene. And for that reason,
that poem was censored, I believe, by the postal service
that wouldn’t distribute it. So we went to court. This is the 1950s. And won a ruling on the side
that this poem can and should be published and the government
cannot censor something because someone
considers it obscene. I think as time has
passed, a lot of people have kind of lost track of that. And there’s a sense
that if there’s language that’s
hateful, if there’s language that’s discriminatory,
that we should give the government the power,
in one form or another, to limit the expression
of that view. And the ACLU– we still
stand by the principle that that would be a really
dangerous path to go down. It is dangerous for
a number of reasons. One is that we don’t believe
that force or government power should be used to suppress
the ability of a human being to express a point of view. Beyond that, once you create
that basis and legal precedent, or in other places, that
will be used in all manner to restrict all forms of
expression that someone finds offensive, or
discriminatory, or the like. Now what are the limits to that? One is the limit of
a threat of violence. If there’s a
statement that is made that’s targeted an individual,
and it’s a threat of violence, that’s different. Another would be, like, sexual
harassment or racial harassment in the workplace or in a school,
where a person should have the right to free
employment and education, free from discrimination. So there are places where
there’s a limit to it. You know, Google being
a technology company, one of the big challenges
is on platforms like YouTube or social media
platforms, which is an inordinately complex area. But we’re mindful of
how do you make sure that you don’t hand that
power to large corporations to then be the deciders
of what can be said and what can’t be said. But some of this language does
cross the line into threats. And so how do you manage that? That’s the problem that the
ACLU is concerned about and one that I know companies
are also dealing with. SPEAKER 1: So what are the
dangers of overreaction here? So that’s something that we
see on the progressive side, people, like, being
really worried. Are you yourself worried? Is there any sort of advice
that we can make to people who– may be studying about past? Because this is
not the first time, this isn’t the first episode
of things like this happening. ABDI SOLTANI: You
know, my advice would be let’s say there’s a
speaker who has been invited to come to a university. And there’s a group of
people who object strongly to the points of view that that
person has expressed before. It is equally a freedom of
speech of those protesters to protest that
speaker’s coming. At the same time, you can
also just ignore the person and not give them the
platform of the conflict that they’re also looking for. But I would just
say that I don’t think it’s wise to try
to shut down the speaker and to use the protest for
the purpose of shutting down the speaker. I think that that goes
really into an area that’s not within the realm
of a free society. And as satisfying
as that might be, the way that that
plays out over time, it does not lead to
a good destination. Someone might say, well, giving
these people the platform to speak will also not
lead to a good destination. But I think we have
to be wise in how do we make the choices
about how we protest, how we exercise our
freedom of speech to lead us down a path towards
actual freedom and actually equality. So when a person
is coming to speak, and if you object to
what they have to say, you can exercise your
freedom of speech vigorously, and you can protest
it, and that, too, is the freedom of speech. But I would just
say where it crosses a line is where we expect
government authorities to be the ones to censor
someone or where we use our protests in order
to shut other people down. I think that’s a line
that’s not worth crossing– SPEAKER 1: Thank you. So– ABDI SOLTANI: –or even
appropriate to cross. SPEAKER 1: ACLU of
Northern California– I want to talk about some
California-specific issues. In particular,
criminal justice reform is one of the areas of interest
that you have been, yourself, very active in. Can you tell us a little
bit about the activities at Northern California
ACLU, taking on that regard? ABDI SOLTANI: Yeah. So you know, when
you get into reading the Constitution and
especially the Bill of Rights, the original 10
Amendments, a lot of it is about the operation of
the criminal justice system. The Fourth Amendment
is the right to be secure in our persons
from unreasonable search and seizure. The Fifth Amendment is
a due process provision. The Eighth Amendment protects
us from cruel and unusual punishment. So for an organization
whose mission is to provide for and
protect constitutional rights for everyone, the
criminal justice system becomes, by definition, a
central part of the work that the ACLU does
today and has done for the better part of a
century of being in existence. Beginning in the
1980s especially, the set of policies in the war
on drugs and other policies really led to this rapid growth
in our criminal justice system, what we call mass incarceration. And that period also marks
a very rapid increase in the number of
people of color, especially African-Americans,
as well as Latinos, being part of that
system of incarceration. In the arc of what
we were talking about with the 14th
Amendment, there’s a wonderful book written by
Michelle Alexander called “The New Jim Crow” that a
lot of people have read. It’s gotten a lot of attention. And Michelle makes the
argument that the system of mass incarceration became
the next manifestation of the previous system
of racial segregation that was created after the
period of Reconstruction. And this became the
new, legalized way in which to promote inequality
after the gains of the Civil Rights movement. So all of that to say that this
is an incredibly important area of work. Over the last eight or so years,
the California legislature, California voters,
Governor Brown have enacted a set of reforms
to reduce the number of people incarcerated. Initially, part of the
pressure was the recession. There was pressure to
cut government, state, and local government spending. And incarceration is
a pretty unwise use of resources, especially
the way we’ve been doing it. But it was also prompted partly
by a Supreme Court decision in a case called
Plata that dealt with the condition of
incarceration in our state prisons. So right now, today,
there are a couple of places where we
really urge people to be attentive and involved. The first is our
county prosecutors, which in California are
called district attorneys, they are the most important
actor in the criminal justice system. When you think about this
problem, 90%, plus or minus of incarcerated people are
held either in local government or state government. This problem of
mass incarceration– there are federal issues
that are involved, but it’s very much a
county and a state issue. So every person should know
who is your elected district attorney. If you live in Santa Clara
County, San Mateo County, or if you’re watching
this anywhere else, there is someone in
your county government who is your representative,
the advocate of the people in the criminal justice system. And at the ACLU,
we’re asking people to know who that official is. Call that office and ask
them to pursue policies that reduce incarceration,
that promote alternatives to incarceration. So that’s one major area. And I mean, for the
people in the room, raise your hand if you know
who your district attorney is for your county. So for the people
watching on the webcast, there’s a lot of shrugging
and very interesting facial expressions that
all say we don’t know. So I would make that
your assignment today. Look up who is your
county district attorney, and make a phone call
to that office and say, I am concerned about
the fact that I live in a country
that is the world’s leader in incarceration. And I’d like to know what are
the steps your office is taking to dramatically reduce the
number of people who are locked behind bars, to find
alternatives to incarceration for people with mental
health problems, or for people who can be
set on a different path. And then centrally,
what steps are you taking to address
racial inequality in the decision of who to charge
and what charges to pursue? I think for any of
us, whether we’re a citizen or a person
who’s not a citizen, to abrogate our voice in
our criminal justice system and to not hold these people
who are elected accountable is giving up part of
our responsibility. Because they are carrying out
these policies in our name as the elected representative
of the people in court. So that’s part of our
responsibility to check that and to rein it in. A second big area is bail. And I think that that’s a space
in which we are very active. More than half of the people
who are held in our county jails are people who are not yet
found guilty of a crime. They’ve been charged
of a crime, and they’re being held awaiting trial. In the United States, when
you are charged with a crime, you have an opportunity
usually to post bail. And the Constitution actually
says that there shall not be excessive bail. But when we live in
a time, in an era, where there’s so much
economic inequality, most Americans cannot handle
like a $400 car emergency, let alone have to pay tens of
thousands of dollars in bail to await trial outside of jail. So what you do is, you post a
bond through a commercial bail bond company. The commercial bail bond
industry, the way it works is that, if your bail is, say,
$50,000, the $10,000 of it is nonrefundable. So even if you show up to
court, you don’t get that back. And so for a lot of people, that
then creates this cycle of debt and contributes to poverty. And so even if you’re innocent,
even if you meet every court date, you’re still left
with that economic penalty. So replacing bail
requires us to be very thoughtful about
what do we replace the system of
commercial bail with. I don’t think there’s
much to be said in defense of commercial money bail. It’s kind of hard to justify
the idea that a person who has money can secure their
freedom through bail, and a person who
doesn’t languishes in jail awaiting trial. It’s pretty hard to
defend that system. I think we’ve done a good job
of making the case for why we need to make the switch. But I think that
the alternative is one that needs to be very
carefully thought through to be one that
reduces incarceration while people await trial. And we could talk about that
some more if you’d like. AUDIENCE: Didn’t the
city of San Francisco just pass something that
eliminates the requirement of bail, or the– ABDI SOLTANI: Yes. So it’s a great question about
whether San Francisco voted to end bail. There’s a movement around the
country to end commercial bail and switch to a system where a
person can receive services, be out of jail while
they’re awaiting trial. With rare exceptions,
if the person poses like an imminent threat
to public safety. A lot of local jurisdictions
are adopting reforms to bail. There’s another related
issue, which is around fines and fees that are
charged to criminal defendants, or people who’ve been in jail. And jurisdictions like San
Francisco and Alameda County are moving in the direction
of eliminating those. But California has
not eliminated– well, the legislature
just passed a bill, SB10, that the ACLU originally
sponsored and supported. But we ultimately withdrew
our support and opposed it. What SB10 does is it ends
commercial cash bail. But what it created
as an alternative creates too much detention. There’s big categories
of people who will be presumed to be
held in jail we just felt that that is not the
direction that the bail reform needs to go. AUDIENCE: Data shows that school
segregation is getting worse what do you consider as a
successful long term plan to improve the integration? ABDI SOLTANI: Wow,
great question. That question is from
Anonymous– good job, Anonymous. You know, the relationship
of school segregation really also goes with housing
and residential segregation. So when it comes to actual
segregation in terms of schools, after
the Brown versus Board of Education
decision in 1954, which is as important a
Supreme Court as we have had, what that said is that
we will not tolerate separate and equal schools. And there was a set
of policies that went into place to create
integration and provide more access to equal
educational opportunities. Subsequent Supreme
Court decisions said that that
responsibility does not cross school districts. It’s only within a
given school district. So to the extent that our
neighborhoods and our cities are so segregated that people
cannot afford to live anywhere in Santa Clara County or Alameda
County because of the cost of housing or in the vicinity
of a school district, it’s very difficult under
current Supreme Court precedent to create more diverse schools
across those school district lines. Within a school district,
school districts can actually adopt
a number of policies to make sure that the
schools are diverse. And actually, the
ACLU has had a number of cases here in California
that tried to do that within the bounds of state law. There’s a Proposition 209, which
eliminated affirmative action based on race or
gender, that also has this negative
effect on the ability to create diversity in schools. But there’s ways to do
it still within the law. On education, though, there’s
a whole set of other issues that deal with access to
adequate funding for low income kids and kids of color. Also, one of the big issues we
deal with is the significant racial inequality in school
suspensions and expulsions, where the research shows that
for very similar behavior, especially– the most
extreme is black boys– face very harsh
punishment compared to other kids in the schools. So those are a set of
issues around education in which we’re very active. AUDIENCE: The preamble
to the First Amendment says Congress shall pass
no law, dot, dot, dot. And it seems that
there is a great deal of misunderstanding in the
populace about that part of it. Can you comment on the
legal ramifications of, say, the social
media ban of Alex Jones? ABDI SOLTANI: Yeah, so the
First Amendment, as you said, does say Congress
shall pass no law. And then it goes on
to fill that out. So that has been understood to
mean that a mayor, a president, a sheriff, a school principal– that they can not
unconstitutionally violate your freedom
of speech, as well. So the Congress shall
pass no law is inclusive of other actors in government. And actually, it’s
the 14th Amendment– and part of why
it’s so powerful– is that it’s the
14th Amendment that took the rest of
the Bill of Rights and applied it to local
and state government. Until that time, something
like the First Amendment didn’t yet apply to
schools or to cities. So the 14th Amendment sweeps
in the rest the Constitution and applies it to
local government. But the First Amendment
itself does not directly regulate private conduct. The First Amendment
doesn’t limit my ability to speak to you, and it
has limited applications when it comes to private
companies or private platforms. Even its reach in private
universities is limited. So there is some ways in which
the First Amendment is limited. But I think the principle
of freedom of expression is one that we embrace and want
to apply in as many settings as possible. AUDIENCE: So next question
on the [INAUDIBLE] is that what are
learnings and guidance we can take from that
period of Reconstruction to launch a movement for
equality and renewed commitment to constitutional
rights for all? How do we not repeat
elements of history? ABDI SOLTANI: So thank
you for the question about Reconstruction. I think for anyone, if you
didn’t hear the question, it’s what are the
lessons we can take from the period
of Reconstruction that we can apply today? And also, how can we make
sure that we don’t make the same mistakes in the past? There’s some really incredible
books written on this subject. In the last three years,
I’ve read more books than I think I did
cumulatively in all of college. Because I’ve been
really trying to learn about this period
of American history, which is full of
important lessons. I would say the first and
foremost, the bedrock lesson, is the importance of
protecting the right to vote, but also exercising the right
to vote and running for office. The period of Reconstruction,
in just a few short years, there were thousands
of African-Americans who ran for and were elected to
office throughout the country. And I am actually
quite heartened to see how much energy there
is right now in both protecting voting rights,
but also encouraging people to vote and people showing
more energy in that area. But the great
warning of the period of the end of
Reconstruction is the way in which the courts can really
abandon their responsibility when it comes to
equality and freedom. And that’s where it’s so
incumbent on all of us to– you know, not all
of us can be a judge. And so we have other branches
of government in which we can exercise our power. And for the people
who are involved in the judicial system, it
is so important for them to uphold the rule of law and
the principles of equality. There’s a set of
Supreme Court decisions that very quickly came
one after the other. The most famous is
Plessy versus Ferguson, which allowed for explicit
racial discrimination to stand, even though we had just
abolished slavery and passed these incredible constitutional
amendments and statutes. So I would just
say we have to just be super alert, super active,
and do everything we can in every facet of our lives. And on that point,
what I would just say is we have certain rights and
responsibilities as persons, whether we’re citizens or not. We should use those. We have certain rights and
responsibilities as citizens, uniquely– for example,
the right to vote. We should use those. We also have rights
and responsibilities in our companies and
in our associations. And so for people
who work in Google, you know, your company
has incredible reach, incredible power. And as you’re
looking at the future of artificial intelligence,
or the applications of your technology, there
are enormous consequences for freedom, for
liberty, for equality that you, as the stewards
of this technology, are actually in
the best position to see and address
at the source. Ultimately, policymakers and the
public have to weigh in, too. But I think you all
have a certain set of responsibilities that I
would really encourage you to– in many ways, you
already do exercise with a great deal
of responsibility. And I would really encourage
you to embrace that role as being that guardian, right at
the source of the code itself, or as the application or
the idea is being developed. AUDIENCE: Question? AUDIENCE: So I was wondering,
are there any active efforts going on in ACLU to
fight the travel ban? If yes, what, and if not, why? ABDI SOLTANI: OK. So the Supreme Court
upheld the Travel Ban 3.0. And the Supreme Court’s
say is the final say when it comes to
the judicial system. The way in which
we will continue to fight the travel
ban, ultimately, will be through
legislation in Congress. Congress can change that. A future president or a future
administration can revoke it, can change it. Ultimately, there will
also be other cases that will go up to the courts. So on July 5th, the ACLU
of Northern California filed a case on behalf of an
Iranian-American family related to how they were being treated
under the waiver provisions, or under other provisions
that should be in place. So the short answer to your
question is we will not rest, and we will not give up, until
this policy of the Executive Branch of the United
States government is changed and replaced with
a system of immigration that’s not based on nationality,
or is not based on religion, or other aspects of protected
human characteristics. AUDIENCE: But there
are no active– sort of direct
efforts, [INAUDIBLE]?? ABDI SOLTANI: There are. Some of the groups we work with
have brought a class action case on the waiver provision. But there’s not a new
path on litigation after the Supreme Court
ruled on the issues that the court already ruled on. But I think that’s where
the family separation issue is so important. That policy of separating
children from their parents has many of the same
qualities as the travel ban. It’s incredibly cruel,
inhumane, and unjust. It is motivated by the same
basic prejudice and principle of trying to deny that
opportunity for people to come to the United States. And it also has all of
the same characteristics of being completely
irresponsibly conceived and executed, such that they
can’t even find these children. So we may need to move
our fight from one arena to another arena. But it’s all still protecting
that same principle of due process and equal
protection under the law. And that’s where I will
say, as an Iranian-American, and as a person who has
earned his citizenship because of something
like the 14th Amendment– and to the question of
what are the lessons– that’s where we all have
to pool our resources and pool our commitment
not just to protecting our individual situation, but
protecting that basic principle of equal protection under the
law, due process, and the rule of law. If those ideas are strong, they
can be strong for all of us. But if those ideas become
weak, or if we abandon them for one group, it
is the beginning of abandoning it for everyone. So the rights of women to birth
control, to contraception, to abortion– that is a fundamental
issue of equality. The rights of lesbian
and gay couples to love the person that they
love, the right of a person who is transgender to live their
life free of discrimination and to be able to live
their life safely– these are issues
that we have to all be in the circle of protecting
those freedoms and rights, because we’re all going
to be in it together. I think if there’s one
lesson from American history, it’s that. It’s that when we come
together in defense of that basic set of commitments
and principles, all of us do better, every one of us. When that right starts to
be weakened or abandoned, then it starts to take it away
from every single one of us. So to your great question,
I would say we will persist. And we’ll find every
possible avenue to address the issue
of the Muslim ban. But the way we will all do
that is by working together on the whole package. AUDIENCE: In addition to the
important national issues that you’re working on,
what are the specific things that Google can help to the
ACLU of Northern California? How can Google as
a company help? How can we as Googlers help? ABDI SOLTANI: You know, I would
just encourage every Google employee, whether you
work here in Mountain View at the headquarters or
anywhere in the United States or anywhere in the world,
to please be involved. I would encourage you to have
a plan around the following things. One is your
charitable donations. The ACLU appreciates
that support, and we have many
other organizations we work with that also
need that support. So I think one is what do
you do in your charitable giving as a person. I think second is in
terms of your involvement in your activism, in
voting, in being involved. Whether you’re a citizen or not,
you have the freedom of speech. The right to vote
is the one part that only a citizen can
do in the United States. And then I would
encourage you as people who work in one of the most
powerful and influential companies in the world is to
develop products and services that can facilitate
human communication, human participation,
and to be really watchful of those ways in which
your technologies can create a backdoor towards
abusing people’s rights. And I think that’s a place
where Google employees have a disproportionate role
or influence in terms of making sure that your
technology facilitates human liberty and equality,
as compared to being a tool that can be used for
those opposite purposes. SPEAKER 1: Thank you so much. Thank you for attending. [APPLAUSE] ABDI SOLTANI: Thank
you very much.


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