The Speed Camara Conundrum

Speed cameras are once again in the news as State Senator Jim Brochin wants to curtail their use in inactive construction zones, probably after having read a story in the Baltimore Sun that credited 8,800 tickets to the cameras over a six-week period on three stretches of highway marked as work zones.

As a driver who often struggles to stay within the posted limits, I have no love for devices that promise to surreptitiously expose and punish my bad driving habits. However, as someone who believes in the principle of a society based on the rule of law, I have a difficult time defending my right to evade detection.

Yes, I realize that they’re probably just cash cows for local governments, disguised as traffic safety devices, but if they’re generating a lot of money, that means that there are a lot of scofflaws out there, myself included. If I accept the argument that the ability to evade the law is not a right, if I accept the premise that law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to enforce the law, then I must also find my distaste for the cameras problematic, especially in light of the 12mph “grace zone” granted by the devices.

At the end of the day, to argue against speed cameras is to argue for speeding. Speeding causes accidents by reducing the amount of time a driver has to react to changing situations; speeding makes accidents worse by increasing the velocity of the collision. Therefore, it would be lunacy to be consciously supportive of a behavior that can only be viewed as potentially destructive.

There are positive aspects to speed cameras as well. Speed cameras allow police officers to be somewhere else, doing something more important that hiding in the bushes alongside a highway. It would also stand to reason that they’re also probably conditioning drivers to obey the posted speed limits.

Some call the cameras an unreasonable invasion of privacy, but I don’t buy that. If I’m operating as a government-licensed driver, in my government-licensed vehicle on a government-maintained road, where can be my expectation of privacy? Did I not surrender that when I agreed to be subject to government oversight in exchange for the privilege to operate a motor vehicle publicly?

And what about police cameras aimed at street corners where drug-trafficking is known to exist? If those are a good idea, why not speed cameras?

Conservatives contend that the devices are just a sneaky way for tax-and-spend liberals to take and spend more of our money. Perhaps, but bear in mind that those contributing their money have at their disposal an easy way to opt-out: stop speeding.

Does all this logic make me feel better about speed cameras? No. Do I now welcome a proliferation of cameras everywhere, as a low-cost, convenient way to promote law abidance? Unequivocally not. Am I left feeling more comfortable with an increasingly intrusive government? Quite the contrary.

What I’m left with is that uneasy “Big Brother Is Watching You” feeling, but without any way to protest rationally. I know there’s something in all this that’s not right, but I don’t know what.

And it’s that intellectual impotence that bothers me the most.

MHEC Ruling On UMUC Program Must Be Reversed

Last October, the Maryland Higher Education Commission ruled that University of Maryland University College‘s online doctoral program in community college administration was a duplication of Morgan State‘s face-to-face program and thus a violation of civil rights protections in place for historically black colleges. As a result, UMUC is now prohibited from offering the course in Maryland, although curiously, it can offer the course in the other 49 states.

The MHEC‘s misguided ruling reflects not a bias toward Morgan State as much as it reflects the age of the members of the Commission, with the only member of the Commission younger than 45 being the student representative. The delivery system for higher education in America is being rapidly altered by existing and emerging technologies, and these changes require a modern, more nuanced way of thinking about universities, what they offer and how they serve the needs of the community. I have firsthand knowledge of this, being enrolled in UMBC’s online Instructional Systems Development program.

To anyone paying attention, it is clear that various forms of distance learning will play an increasing role in the delivery system of the nation’s colleges. As this occurs, there will necessarily be overlap with some traditional programs. However, it is a mistake to treat online courses as if they were classroom courses for the purpose of excluding them. We should be encouraging the development of parallel online courses, not shutting them down. And giving Morgan State, a university with limited online experience, two years to create something from nothing, is at best a weak nod in the direction of distance learning.

What the commissioners may not understand is that UMUC’s program isn’t competing with Morgan State’s – it’s competing with other online programs across the country. The MHEC’s decision presupposes that the market served by Morgan State, traditional students available for attendance in a classroom, is the same group of people targeted by UMUC’s online program. Clearly, this is not the case. Online learners are almost always working adults seeking to fulfill their educational requirements while maintaining job, family and other commitments (like me).

The good news is that the university system’s Board of Regents is unwilling to surrender so easily, and will ask the Commission to reconsider. From the Sun article:

“The decision completely ignores a stated priority in the 2009 Maryland State Plan for Higher Education,” wrote Board of Regents Chairman Clifford Kendall in a letter to the commission. “The State Plan supports access to degrees through online programs in order to meet ‘the needs of a largely working, adult population who require a flexible schedule.’ This decision sets a potentially debilitating precedent that will discourage universities from doing the very thing that MHEC’s state plan charges them to do.”

Demonstrating his antiquated view of the situation, MHEC Chairman Kevin O’Keefe said, “I remain convinced that this was an isolated issue.” Even more depressing is O’Keefe’s belief that there will not be a “…strong sentiment among the majority of our members that we should reconsider the issue.”

Perhaps it is asking too much of this particular group of individuals to free themselves of a lifetime of assumptions about higher education and the way this product is delivered to its market. Too often, membership on the MHEC is a reward for a career of service to the community and while this may seem noble, it deprives the commission of the benefit of fresh thinking and new ideas. It may be that the only way for Maryland to become a leader in e-Learning, m-Learning and other non-traditional delivery systems is to replace (or supplement) the existing members of the MHEC with individuals who are not so tied to the past. I just hope that by the time this happens, national leadership in higher education hasn’t fallen too far from our grasp.

The Jury System Should Be Discarded

The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers has been a foundational right in Western legal tradition for many centuries, and is present both in English Common Law and the United States Constitution. Americans are raised to believe in the iconic (and stereotypical) image of twelve ordinary, reasonably intelligent citizens taking their duty seriously and returning a fair and impartial verdict. We persist in the delusion that twelve individuals of no particular training or experience will interpret and apply the law better than an individual who has spent his life being educated and trained to do just that. This is, I suppose, a byproduct of our narcissistic belief in the “wisdom of the common man.”

12 Angry Men - The 1957 classic that helped create the fantasy jury stereotype.

The reality is that what we end up with, more often than not, are twelve people selected not on the basis of their qualification to stand in judgement of a particular case, but precisely for their lack of qualification and knowledge about the central issues of the case at hand. For example, as potential jurors are being screened by the attorneys, if a citizen admits to being an expert in case-law regarding the key elements of the trial, he or she will be quickly dismissed. On the other hand, should a potential juror admit to being so indifferent to legal issues as to be unaware of even the illegality of the charges against the defendant, this person is considered an excellent candidate for the jury. The more serious the case, the more vigorous will be the search for the perfect juror.

Who is the perfect juror? Lawyers search for jurors who are so dimly aware of, and participate so infrequently in, their society that they have never come into contact with anything that might have provided them with information that they might use to form an intelligent and informed decision. This is because the attorneys want the jurors to only be conscious of information provided to them in court. A perfect juror, in their eyes, is a blank slate who can be effectively swayed by the words of lawyers. It makes no difference that adults who are “blank slates” are in this condition for a reason. So, by the process of negative selection, we arrive at a jury that is populated with individuals who are the least likely to employ complicated, nuanced reasoning when presented with evidence in court.

Having a jury of simple folk may have been workable in an age where the Cotton Gin represented the height of ingenuity, but is simply inadequate in modern times. Much of the physical evidence that jurors are expected to interpret today is highly technical, and many of the terms that will eventually decide guilt or innocence have definitions with multiple layers that require a depth of understanding to apply in real life. If the jury, during deliberations, recognizes this dilemma and asks for clarification or explanation of terms, they are usually told that this assistance would be inappropriate. This leaves them to grope about for a verdict with the same utter ignorance with which they first came to the courtroom. Confused jurors tend to ignore evidence, which favors the defendant (i.e., the O.J. Simpson jury).

The Simpson Jury (sketch by Bill Robles) - The forgettable 1995 reality show that demonstrated one of the major failings of the modern jury system.

Sometimes, jurors attempt to overcome their ignorance by educating themselves on the issues, but even this genuine search for truth is not allowed. In an article in the Baltimore Sun, this new concern about jurors using the internet to gain access to information not presented during the trial is examined. Judges, lawyers and legal experts wring their hands over cases of jurors doing “research” on the case as they attempt to reach a fair verdict. Remember, the perfect juror is clueless and remains completely dependent on their case’s lawyers for information. Curiosity, even in a quest for justice, is not permitted.

Another problem presented by the existence of advanced technology is what legal experts call “The CSI Effect.” This refers to the often unattainable expectations that many jurors have about the quality and breadth of forensic evidence in criminal cases. Many times, these “blank slates” sole knowledge of the judicial system comes from watching television programs where every crime leaves plenty of damning physical evidence, evidence that is scientifically conclusive, indisputable and easily understood by laymen. When prosecutors fail to present evidence that meets these unrealistic expectations, jurors assume that their case is weak and acquit the defendant.

Television and the media in general are responsible for another problem with juries: the celebrity juror syndrome. In high-profile trials, jurors may be oblivious to practical information that they could use to render an intelligent verdict, but they are very aware of the presence of cameras and reporters. Realizing that their willingness to participate in the media frenzy could give them their “fifteen minutes” of fame,  some jurors might begin to weigh the relative value of a particular outcome to their quest for celebrity.

Up to this point, I have been addressing criminal cases only, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention civil juries. We have all read about outrageous monetary penalties levied by juries as the result of lawsuits, and perhaps wondered how such a figure might have been arrived at. This exposes another failure of the jury system: human emotion. In our stereotypical jury, emotion plays no role whatsoever in the verdict; only the evidence and the law are considered. In the real world, when witnesses are hurting, and when testimony is riveting and heartbreaking, juries respond favorably. Once you’ve seen the tears and heard the story, it becomes comparatively easy to punish the cold, impersonal corporation by giving away their money. It also makes you feel good, sort of like Robin Hood. Who wouldn’t want to be Robin Hood?

Having weighed the evidence myself, I am prepared to overturn the dysfunctional jury system and relegate it to the annals of history. I realize, though, that to do this, laws, and sometimes constitutions, would have to be rewritten. Since legislatures are dominated by elected lawyers and lobbyist lawyers, I’m also smart enough to realize that it will never happen. So it goes.

Ranking the Most Important Constitutional Amendments (post-Bill of Rights)

For today’s History List, I look at the lesser known amendments to our constitution that were ratified after the Bill of Rights. (Everyone knows the 1st and 5th amendments, but what about the 23rd?) I rank them as to how important they are today, not necessarily how important they were at the moment they were ratified.

And away we go:

1. 13th Amendment – Ratified almost immediately after the end of the Civil War, this abolished slavery in the United States, removing America’s original sin and fundamentally changing the nation’s character. Without this, the United States would have lacked the moral gravitas to act as a force for civil rights around the world.

2. 14th Amendment – Makes the citizenship of former slaves part of the constitution, removing any potential legal challenges or clever legislative devices to deny the benefits of freedom to those formerly held as slaves. This amendment was largely a reaction to the attempts of Southern states to so restrict the movements and activities of African-Americans as to return them to something very much like slavery.

3. 15th Amendment – Makes it unconstitutional to restrict voting based on race. Another Reconstruction amendment codifying the rights of former slaves.

4. 19th Amendment – Makes it unconstitutional to restrict voting based on gender. Giving women the right to vote took until 1920 – fifty years after African-Americans got the vote.

5. 24th Amendment – Another voting rights act, this time making it unconstitutional to compel voters to pay a tax in order to vote. These “poll taxes” were applied to Southern blacks as a way to discourage their voting. This amendment wasn’t passed until 1964, almost 100 years after the Civil War.

6. 16th Amendment – Allows a federal income tax. We may hate it, but this is how the massive machine that is our government gets paid for.

7. 12th Amendment – In the election of 1800 Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, running mates in the Presidential election, tied in electoral votes. (In those days, vote-getter #1 became President, while the runner-up became Vice-President.) The contest went to the House of Representatives, where Burr almost wrested the presidency from Jefferson.  This amendment straightened out the process, making it clear to electors who was running for President and who was running for Vice President.

8. 17th Amendment – United States Senators used to be selected by state legislatures. This amendment elects them by a direct vote of the people.

9. 21st Amendment – repeals the 18th amendment (prohibition of alcohol), ending the gangster era and bringing drunkards out of closet.

10. 22nd Amendment- Ratified in 1951 as a response to Franklin Roosevelt being elected four times, this amendment restricts the President to two terms of office. This amendment had the unintentional effect of making every two-term president a “lame duck,” with limited power and influence. In reality, a president has a term and a half to get his agenda passed, after that, forget about it.

11. 25th Amendment – Clarified the order of Presidential succession. Here it is, in case you were wondering:

Office Currently Held By
1 Vice President Joe Biden
2 Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi
3 President pro tempore of the Senate Robert Byrd
4 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
5 Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner
6 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
7 Attorney General Eric Holder
8 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
9 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
10 Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
11 Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis
12 Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius
13 Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan
14 Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood
15 Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
16 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
17 Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki
18 Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano

12. 26th Amendment – In 1971, the voting age was dropped to 18, immediately causing millions of young Americans to ignore it.

13. 11th Amendment – Prevents states from being sued by citizens. Can you imagine how hopelessly clogged our court system would be if you could sue the government?

14. 23rd Amendment – In 1961, the voters of Washington, D.C. finally got included in the Electoral College. Democrats have been thankful ever since.

15. 27th Amendment – This amendment, which was only ratified in 1992, says that any Congressional pay raise (or decrease) cannot take effect until the next Congress is seated. In 1873, Congress tried to give themselves a 50% pay raise, backdated to the beginning of their terms! This ruse failed when the public caught wind of it.

16. 20th Amendment – Presidents used to be sworn in on March 4th, but with travel being much faster than it was in Washington’s day, this amendment changed the date to January 20, with Congress being sworn in on January 3.

17. 18th Amendment – (Prohibition of alcohol) This amendment tried to legislate morality and failed, giving rise to an era of speakeasies, gangsters and classic movies about speakeasies and gangsters. The 21st Amendment repealed it.

Proposed Math Requirement Should Be Reconsidered

In today’s Baltimore Sun, University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. Kirwan, a former math professor, says that he wants to see university-bound high school seniors forced to take challenging math courses. His object is to better prepare students for college and for STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) careers. It is his hope that forcing students into math classes will produce more STEM majors at the university level.

If the object is to channel more students toward math and technology careers, then we should be spending more time identifying likely prospects far earlier in their lives, not using a “one-size fits all” approach after having ignored differences in aptitude for a child’s first three years of secondary school.  As a former high school teacher, I can tell you that it is usually clear by a student’s sophomore year whether or not he or she will be a math scholar. The 300 lb. gorilla in the corner of the room is the fact that many of our children are just not equipped for advanced math courses, and for them, surviving basic math classes is challenge enough. Compelling kids to take advanced math courses will not change this, and is patently unfair to a student who will derive no real benefit from it.

This brings me to a second ugly truth that mathematicians hate to admit: very few adults retain and use advanced math skills in their daily lives. In the Sun article, Skip Fennell, a professor at McDaniel College and former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in defending the proposed requirement, says as much. “If you don’t use it, you lose it…” Mr. Fennell, this applies to nearly everyone who isn’t in on a STEM career path. More to the point, many kids never had it to begin with, and won’t miss it as adults.

The narrow utility of advanced math skills sits in stark contrast to the broad and sweeping utility of English language skills. Whereas mastering calculus is of dubious value to the majority of graduates, being able to use language at a high level is absolutely essential for anyone hoping to do more with their lives than settle for low-paying, menial work. Additionally, I can personally attest to the weakness of our high school graduates in the areas of reading and composition, and these students (and their instructors who are forced to slog through their papers) suffer as a result. It may even be true that a STEM major at the university level will spend as much time crafting sentences as equations, and yet we hear nothing of increasing requirements for this critical, and universally necessary skill.

If this suggestion becomes reality, there is little doubt that those students with an aptitude for mathematics will enter college more prepared for STEM classes. But not every college-bound senior has this aptitude. If we truly want to be about the business of creating STEM scholars, then we had better get on it while our children are still in elementary school, rather than penalizing them as high school seniors.

For my part, I would rather see our educational system geared to identifying each student’s strengths at an early age and then directing their coursework to produce citizens highly equipped to succeed in life. Not every child has the intellectual makeup for success in math and science; to act as if they do does both the student and the national economy a disservice. Rather than requiring every peg to fit into a round hole, why not invest time and treasure in identifying the peg’s shape, and then creating holes that fit?

D.C. Sniper John Allen Muhammad is Dead, and I Don’t Feel Any Better

Last night, the state of Virginia executed convicted D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad. Many commentators had said (as they always do), that this final act was really about “closure” for the victims’ families, and yet, none of those family members admitted to feelings of closure last night, and a few denied it outright. I suspect that the only true instance of closure last night belonged to Muhammed. Yes, I know that he deserved it, but it still made me feel uneasy, and more than a little bit conflicted.

Don’t think that I’m just someone who can’t stomach the death penalty (there are plenty of crimes I think are quite suited for it, especially where children are involved).  I believe that the reason I, like many Americans, feel sympathy for the condemned killers at the time of their execution is more logical. When the crimes are committed, and fresh in our memories, we surge with horror and outrage. We imagine what the last moments of the victims must have been like, and try to empathize with their families. At that moment, our sense of justice cries out for retribution against the perpetrator.

However, the wheels of due process grind very slowly. Gradually, over time, our outrage fades, new crimes replace the old, and we forget the faces of the innocent. At the time of trial, our attention may be regained briefly, but only with a fleeting, passing glance – certainly not with the same intensity as it had been at the time of the crimes. By the time the killer is sentenced to die, our emotional state is approaching something more akin to ambivalence than righteous fury. The process has begun.

The process of emotional dissociation accelerates throughout the ensuing years, as appeals are filed, motions are lost and requests for new trials are denied. Time passes. As the final appeal winds its way toward the Supreme Court, and the date of execution draws closer, the media once again becomes conscious of the story, but the perspective has changed. At this point the stories do not revolve around the horrific nature of the crimes, or the suffering of the victims and their families, but on the condemned’s struggle to survive.

In the final weeks leading up to the execution, we are peppered with professions of innocence, lawyer’s statements that detail the several and serious errors from the original trial and the testimony of credible-sounding people who claim that the convicted person could not possibly have done the thing of which he is accused. We listen, we read, and slowly, imperceptibly, we find our imaginations caught up in the plight of a killer to live just one more month, one more week, one more day.

During the final few days, we become increasingly uncomfortable as it becomes apparent that the condemned is, in fact, doomed to die. We might wonder how one faces the idea that no matter what he does, his life will suddenly end in a now easily quantifiable number of hours. Does he try to stay awake, squeezing out every conscious hour of life that he can? Does he stare at the clock, watching his life inexorably drain away? So much is made of the last meal; how can a man that will be killed in a few hours enjoy anything, much less food? Who could have an appetite at a time like that?

And then, the day arrives. We are busy living lives that have a tomorrow. Still, at moments throughout the day, we may see a clock and quickly do the math: Three hours until he dies. Again we wonder: what is he doing? What is he thinking? Is he keeping his composure? More to the point, could I keep my composure?

The hours pass and we are made aware of a man’s sudden death by a scrolling text at the bottom of a television screen. We consider this for a moment and then return to more immediate concerns, such as whether Daniel will finally get voted off of The Biggest Loser. For us, life goes on, albeit a little more gingerly than before, for a few days anyway, until this death too passes from our conscious memory.

Clearly, it is the buffer of many years’ time that allows our sympathies to be transferred from the victim to the killer. Not that long ago, justice was swift, catching up the convicted while the blood lust of the people was still fully aroused. When the condemned met his fate, there was a sense that balance had been restored; few tears were shed for a person who had done such terrible things, things that had not yet passed from common recall. A primal need for revenge had been satisfied.

I do not long for a return to the days when crime, conviction and consummation all took place within a period of weeks. Justice cannot be accomplished where doubt remains, and my unease is hardly worth mentioning when compared with the need to be absolutely certain of the guilt of the criminal and the guarantee of due process.

I do, however, find myself wondering: Is this what justice is supposed to feel like?

Honestly? I hope not.

The Fort Hood Massacre as the Price of Free Speech

At what point, and to what degree, will Americans be willing to impinge upon their freedom of speech if they believe that lives are at stake? That question bubbles to the surface again today as more becomes known about Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged shooter in the Fort Hood massacre, who apparently was angry about the United States’ prosecution of the War on Terror.

According to wire reports, Hasan’s family was connected with a Virginia mosque that at one time hosted the preaching of radical imam Anwar al Awlaki, and where two of the September 11th hijackers worshiped.  Writing from Yemen, the imam, author of the controversial “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” praised Hasan’s actions and condemned Muslims critical of the attack as “hypocrites.” Awlaki has been often accused of intentionally inciting English-speaking Muslims to violence against the Western World.

This is where the whole “freedom of speech” thing gets somewhat sticky. If it can be demonstrated that Awlaki’s words led to Hasan’s actions, do we still consider those words protected speech? Remember, the element of religious freedom exists to even further complicate the matter. If preaching hatred from the pulpit causes others to deem it God’s will, or perhaps just acceptable, to harm others, should that speech be banned?

Be careful. Before you reflexively answer “yes,” consider the implications. If this ban were enacted, could radical anti-abortion groups be targeted for “hate speech?” How about Rush Limbaugh? Still on board? What about a President who openly condemns insurance interests for their opposition to health care reform? What would seem like an overreaction is only so until there’s an incident involving a desperate man whose child has been denied coverage for what he considers a life-saving treatment. If that were to occur, the culpability of public figures under the new law would immediately come into question, and no doubt countless lawsuits would be filed by the aggrieved.

This is the problem we run into as Americans who profess to defend freedom above all else. If we choose to allow speech that amounts to public attacks upon individuals and organizations, attacks that are intended to arouse individuals to action (as all political attacks are), attacks that we now consider as a normal part of the political process, we must also allow the speech of hate-spewing imams in Virginia.

Of course, there are limits which have been consistently applied over the years, such as removing from that protection speech which can be construed to have the deliberate, intentional purpose to cause harm to another individual or to deprive that individual of their rights under the law. However, in this case, that doesn’t seem to be what was going on in Virginia.

In the coming days, there will be plenty of calls for a rethinking of what’s being preached in America. There may also be condemnations of the patriotism of certain Muslims in America. While it may be easy to point out that inciting people to hate is wrong, it is a far more difficult task to regulate it. I suspect that after the dead of Fort Hood are buried, and the final notes of taps drift away in the autumn breeze, we will discover the price of that regulation to be too steep, and in the end, a poor tribute to those who were, in the end, martyrs of a society based upon free speech.