Archive for September, 2007

No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus

Posted in animals, breaking news, Christmas, environment, history, Law, Law and Justice, leadership, literature, media, North Pole, Polar Express, Politics, relationships, religion, Santa Claus, science, science fiction, technology, Uncategorized, United Nations, war on September 29, 2007 by castagnera

No newspaper columnist or commentator — whether as humble as yours truly or as famous as Andy Rooney — fails to admire Francis Pharcellus Church. On September 21, 1897, the New York Sun published an editorial under the headline “Is there a Santa Claus?” Church’s piece, responding to an inquiry by a little girl, began unforgettably, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” If you are too young to have encountered the column, you can read it, and all about it, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yes,_Virginia,_There_is_a_Santa_Claus, which also offers a 1974 animated-cartoon version and an interview with the girl/woman who inspired Church.
Suffice to say, when I still believed in Santa, his home was the North Pole. Such modern classics as Chris Van Allsburgh’s The Polar Express, which became a Tom Hanks movie in 2004, agree with my geography. No matter: Santa had better plan to confine himself to Macy’s department store from now on. The North Pole is up for grabs and the land (ice?) rush is in full fettle.
According to a Time Magazine cover story, entitled “Fight for the Top of the World,” last week, “As global warming melts the Arctic ice, dreams of a short sea passage to Asia — and riches beneath the surface — have been revived.” Asks the news magazine, “With Russia planting a flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole, Canada talking tough and Washington wanting to be a player, who will win the world’s new Great Game?”
If not Santa, who does own the North Pole? We Yanks have a claim. In 1909 American explorer Robert Peary, accompanied by four Inuit, planted the Stars and Stripes at the spot he believed to be the geographic pole. On April 7th, or perhaps later when preparing his expedition journal for publication, he penned, “The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last.…” All the same, many scientists, historians and geographers now dispute Peary’s accomplishment.
By contrast, Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s 1912 claim of success is much more strongly supported by scientific measurements. Still, should planting a national flag entitle a single nation to the whole enchilada? This was once the way of it. The great Western powers — England, France, and Spain, even tiny Holland and Belgium, and later Germany and the U.S. — built vast empires in Africa, Asia and South America, not to mention Australia and the South Pacific. They all started with explorers planting their country’s flags on far-off beaches and mountaintops.
Those days are long gone, together with those European empires. Their chapter in World History 101 was slammed decisively shut the moment the last helicopter left the roof of the American embassy in Saigon in 1974. The few remaining tin-pot protectorates and island colonies hanging on today aren’t worthy of a mention here.
So how in the heck can anybody claim a floating mass of ice and snow at the top of the world? This seems to me to be as bad as the patenting of human DNA. Although such patenting proceeds apace, as does the scramble for the North Pole, opposition is building beside it. According to the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics, “For example, from 1993 to 1994, more than thirty organizations representing indigenous peoples approved formal declarations objecting to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) bid to patent viral DNA taken from subjects in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.” In 1995, 180 religious leaders led by Jeremy Rifkin held a Washington press conference opposing the practice. More recently the European Commission indicated it likely will oppose patents on human DNA.
At a time when Free Market Capitalism rules godlike over globalization, privatization, and outsourcing, everything seems up for sale. But, pendulums, Virginia, have a way of swinging. If Santa can’t have the North Pole all to himself, then perhaps it ought to be held in trust by the United Nations or some such international entity for the benefit of all of us. Maybe even the polar bears, which I hear are having a hard time of it as the ice cap shrinks, deserve our collective consideration.
Journalist Church — who wrote of Santa, “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.” — would probably approve.
Jim Castagnera, formerly of Jim Thorpe, is the Associate Provost and Associate Counsel at Rider University and a 2007-08 Fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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Local and National Cases Prove the Law Prefers Shooters to Streakers

Posted in alcohol, alcoholism, animal house, arrest, binge drinking, breaking news, Crime, criminal justice, gun control, Law, Law and Justice, media, murder, murder in the 20th century, pennsylvania, Politics, pornography, prisons, second amendment, shooting, Terrorism, Uncategorized, Violence, war on terror on September 22, 2007 by castagnera

Black’s Law Dictionary, the Bible of law terminology, defines bail as the “monetary amount for or condition of release from custody, normally set by the judge at the initial appearance.” Three bail determinations occurring last week, two local and one of national prominence, prove to me that the law doesn’t care if you carry a gun, so long as you keep your clothes on.
Let’s begin with the latest chapter in the weird, pathetic parable of O. J. Simpson. Most Americans believe the former football icon got away with murder. Maybe so… but a successful civil suit strapped him with a multi-million dollar debt for the “wrongful deaths” of his wife and her friend. Although the plaintiffs — parents of one of O. J.’s victims — can’t execute their massive money judgment against the Juice’s Florida mansion (due to that state’s homestead-protection laws), they wait to pounce on any Simpson windfall. Consequently, when the NFL star-cum-killer attempted last year to publish his “how I might have done it” tome, he earmarked the royalties for a trust fund for his kids. Fortunately, the few threadbare ethical standards that remain in America to curb celebrity exploitations prevented the book’s release.
Apparently seeking a secondary source of lucre, O. J. and friends staged an attempted robbery of sports memorabilia, including some items of his own. The upshot was his being booked on two counts of robbery with a deadly weapon, two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit burglary and burglary with a firearm, coercion, and, last but not least, kidnapping. How much did it take to get him back on the street? The judge set bail at $125,000 and Juice was back in his Florida crib before you could say, “Snap the ball, baby.”
Meanwhile, home here in Havertown, the News of Delco’s police beat reported that a man arrested for firing his gun on the third floor of his residence, while drunk, was let go on $2,500 bail. Now get this. The guy wasn’t just taking a pot shot at some pesky squirrel. The cops confiscated some 50 shell casings, some of them 9mm and others .22 caliber, along with cans and boxes riddled with holes. Havertown’s finest also found bullet holes in the next door neighbor’s home. Now here’s the best part: the shooter was required to post only 10 percent of the bail amount. He was back on our streets for 250 bucks, folks. That sure makes me feel safe when I walk my dog. How about you?
Apparently, whether one is an internationally known villain wreaking havoc in Sin City, Nevada, or a drunken loony with a homemade shooting gallery in suburban Philly, the law’s attitude is “Aw, shucks.”
But, friends and neighbors, don’t try going naked… at least not around here. (I assume it’s a different story in Las Vegas.) The same issue of the News of Delco reported the arrest and arraignment of a fellow found naked in Naylor’s Run Park. The nudist was picked up while picking flowers near dusk one recent night. He told the fuzz he had been skinny dipping in the creek. He was said to exude the odor of an unspecified alcoholic beverage.
What in its infinite wisdom did the law demand as bail from this frolicking tippler? No less than $75,000… I kid you not.
Why, I am forced to wonder, has the American legal system always been more sensitive to so-called sexual ludeness than to the obscene violence that rages all around us? For my money — which I hope I’ll never have to post as a bail bond — this makes zero sense. Don’t get me wrong. The picture of some naked drunk pulling up daisies is not one I want inside my head. Much less would I have wanted to encounter this character while on a nature walk. Just the same, saddling this harmless dude with a $75,000 price tag for his freedom, while putting O.J. at large for a mere $125,000 and the Havertown target shooter on our streets for a measly $250 — little more than a big night at the Westgate Pub, where other shots were fired in anger not many months ago — makes no sense (nor cents) at all to this old barrister.
Jim Castagnera of Havertown is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University and a 2007-08 Fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Janet’s Anatomy Comes to Philaddelphia

Posted in animal house, athletics, blogging, breaking news, Crime, criminal justice, cyberspace, internet, Law, Law and Justice, media, pennsylvania, Politics, pornography, sports, technology, Uncategorized on September 15, 2007 by castagnera

It is enshrined forever as the most memorable — and expensive — nine-sixteenths of a second in the annals of professional sports: the instant in which Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s right breast to a gazillion gaping Super Bowl fans. Never mind that at any moment of the day or night, on any computer (or Blackberry or phone) with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world, anybody of any age can view all the pornography his little heart desires. The Federal Communication Commission nonetheless fined CBS more than a half-million bucks for indecency. That fine works out to about one dollar for every complaint the network received in the wake of Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.”
On Tuesday, September 11th — ironically the sixth anniversary of a series of unprecedented terrorist attacks, which truly were obscene — this Super Bowl circus came to Philadelphia. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which sits in a courtroom in the federal complex at Seventh and Market Streets heard arguments in the TV network’s appeal of the FCC penalty.
Law junkies and pundits speculated that CBS engaged in so-called “forum shopping” in bringing its plea to Philly. As a Delaware corporation, the company was entitled to take its case either to the District of Columbia circuit court, which sits in the national capital, or the Third Circuit, which has jurisdiction over federal appeals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the First State. If so, then the network’s pick probably paid off. In the words of one observer, the three-judge panel appointed to hear the case was “pretty liberal.” Judges Julio Fuentes and Marjorie Rendell (yes, Governor Ed’s better half) are Clinton appointees, while Chief Judge Anthony Scirica, a Reagan Republican, is reputedly sensitive to corporate concerns.
Speaking as one who’s been there and done that, I can tell you that an oral argument before a panel of federal judges can be a lively experience. Although the lawyers have already submitted briefs (which are anything but brief), they also meticulously prepare oral arguments. They try to anticipate the questions which might be asked by the judges, who have no reluctance to interrupt the most eloquent oral presentation. A so-called “hot” court can give the attorneys a very brisk working-over.
Media reports indicate that these three judges asked numerous “pointed” questions about the network’s control over the performers and about the possibility of doing a video-tape delay in lieu of a live, up-front-and-personal performance. Concerning that latter point, the FCC contended that CBS could easily have instituted the delay technique, since the method was inaugurated only a week later for the Emmy Awards. CBS, all innocence, countered that the show’s producer and director had no reason to anticipate an incident.
Concerning the “control” issue, counsel for the commission contended that CBS enjoyed considerable power, as proven by its editing of a Kid Rock interview in which he mentioned driving a Lexus. Cadillac was a Super Bowl sponsor.
Now the matter rests with the judges, who likely will take three to six months to issue an opinion and a decision. Meanwhile, one might well wonder if this is much ado about nothing. Even worse, is this in the final analysis a win-win for CBS and the two singers, regardless of the case’s outcome?
In a market environment where advertisers spend millions of dollars for mere seconds of Super Bowl exposure, what is $550,000 in the grand scheme of things? The network’s legal fees will surpass the fine by a factor of three or four, I predict. The Third Circuit appeal has enabled the network to continue garnering free publicity. As Senator Huey Long said so many decades ago, there’s no such thing as bad publicity so long as they get your name right.
For the team of Janet and Justin, this is all to the good, too. Who of the hundreds of millions of viewers would even recall that these two had performed, were it not for that nine-sixteenth of a second? The incident has done more to keep their careers alive than has their modest amount of total talent.
Meanwhile, tax payer dollars — your dollars and mine — are used provide CBS with so-called “justice.” As for the FCC, one might well wonder what kind of a dinosaur agency it is: while the Internet offers intimate activity between and among participants of all races, orientations and species, this pathetic example of Washington bureaucracy at its worst wastes its time and budget helping CBS, Jackson and Timberlake keep a pathetic stunt in the public spotlight.
Jim Castagnera of Havertown is the Associate Provost and Associate Counsel at Rider University and a 2007-08 Fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Of Zealous Prosecutors and Trial by Internet

Posted in 1966, arrest, blogging, breaking news, Crime, criminal justice, cyberspace, fraternities, gun control, Higher Education, history, internet, Law, Law and Justice, media, murder, murder in the 20th century, pennsylvania, Politics, prisons, second amendment, shooting, Terrorism, Uncategorized, universities, Violence on September 8, 2007 by castagnera

n “Syriana,” last year’s hit movie about oil, power, corruption and terrorism, a powerful lawyer (Christopher Plummer) tells a once-idealistic CIA operative (George Clooney), “Here in Washington, you’re innocent until investigated.” Two administrators at a central New Jersey college discovered this truth applies beyond our nation’s capital, when they were indicted this summer for hazing (a felony) in the wake of an alcohol –related death on their campus. Although the charges were dismissed six weeks later on the motion of the county prosecutor, a writer in the Trenton Times aptly observed, “The Internet can keep reputations damaged forever, even when persons are acquitted…. Today, an estimated nearly 30 billion Web pages exist, according to boutell.com (www.boutell.com/newfaq/misc/sizeofweb.html).” On the Internet, you are innocent until blogged.
In some cases, even doing the hard-time and ostensibly paying your debt to society isn’t enough to let you get on with your life. Consider William Barnes, aged 71. Some 40 years ago he shot a Philadelphia police officer. Barnes was convicted of attempted murder for the November 27, 1966 shooting, which occurred when rookie cop Walter T. Barclay interrupted Barnes’s burglary of a beauty shop. Barclay was left a paraplegic. He died on August 19th of an infection at age 64. The Bucks County medical examiner ruled Barclay’s death a homicide, concluding there was a causal connection between the ’66 gunshot wound and ’07 fatal illness. Philadelphia DA Lynn Abraham has charged Barnes, who was paroled from prison in 2005 and now works in a supermarket, with murder.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of this bizarre prosecution, Barnes too is already being tried on the Internet.
For instance, a blogger on WordPress.com, one of the net’s most popular blog sites, asks, “So, what do you think? Should he be prosecuted for a crime he has already spent time in prison for?” One respondent opines, “No he served his time and paid his debt to society. I think the double jeopardy rule should apply hear. The fact that this man passed away 40 yrs later, then it shouldn’t be a murder charge. I think murder is when the person dies at the time of the crime or soon after.”
But another blogger retorts, “No no no…. he did die on that tragic day in 1966…he lost everything, his career, chance to get married and have children, and all the things you and I take for granted including being able to WALK!!!! Double jeopardy does not apply here. William Barnes got to serve a few years for attempted murder and seemed to go on enjoying life with no remorse based on his comments to a newspaper although he was in and out of prison even up to now at age 71!! 71 – an age Mr. Barclay didn’t reach. He lived to be 64 years of age of which 41 years were spent in hell. Barnes needs to face justice in our court system. If he is not tried in court, he will have to face the ultimate Judge – God.”
Clearly the Internet jury is still out on Mr. Barnes. Whatever the final cyberspace consensus, he is now permanently enshrined as one of the latest virtual villains of the world-wide web.
Andy Warhol, the avant-garde artist, predicted “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” The advent of reality TV, MySpace.com, Face Book, video-phones, and blog sites has extrapolated Warhol’s prognostication beyond the sixties icon’s wildest fantasies. Some hapless folks, targeted (rightly or wrongly) by zealous prosecutors, are in the words of the Trenton Times “Indicted forever.”

Is There Any Fun Left in College?

Posted in alcohol, alcoholism, animal house, binge drinking, Crime, criminal justice, fraternities, Higher Education, Law, Law and Justice, leadership, media, medicine, Politics, prisons, universities, Violence, VTU on September 1, 2007 by castagnera

It’s been said, “If you remember the sixties, you weren’t there.” Well, I was there and I remember. Especially I recall how anxious I was to get back to college each September. One reason was long, hot summers as a bricklayer’s helper. My dad was that bricklayer and he knew what he was doing. Able to claim only six years of schooling himself, he made sure his boys knew the alternatives to a college degree. Come late August, I was always eager to resume the life of a fraternity “man,” which included plenty of beer, tobacco (and other leafy combustibles) and music (played very loud and very fast). Oh, yeh… and occasional classes.
The release of the Virginia Tech Panel Report last week could not have been better timed to cast a cloud over the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who headed off to our colleges and universities during the same timeframe. The good news is that most universities haven’t waited to review the report’s recommendations. Most that I know have behaved like Penn, which recently reported the creation of a new communication network with which campus security can simultaneously alert every blackberry, cell phone, computer and other electronic gizmo owned by every student, staffer and faculty member, when evil is afoot on the West Philly campus.
As scary as a crazed shooter is, binge drinking remains a far more serious threat on most campuses. The website http://www.kidshealth.org defines binge drinking as, “the consumption of five or more drinks in a row by men — or four or more drinks in a row by women — at least once in the previous 2 weeks. Heavy binge drinking includes three or more such episodes in 2 weeks.” Sometimes binge drinking results in alcohol poisoning. Occasionally that ends in death. USA Today recently put the number of alcohol-related deaths on U.S. college campuses at 620 since January 1, 2000. Most were the result of guzzling a lot of liquor. Some were more bizarre.
The cake-taker seems to belong to Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, where four intoxicated students shoved a pair of Roman candles under the bedroom door of their friend and fellow student. The “joke” resulted in 16 fireballs, each burning fiercely at about 1500 degrees, blasting into the sleeping lad’s room. His buddies hot-footed themselves downstairs, where they gleefully waited outside for their enraged schoolmate to emerge cursing from his bedchamber.
Instead, what they saw as they stood on the front lawn was the bedroom window glowing orange. While a girlfriend dialed 911, the pranksters tried to rescue the target of their practical joke. They were driven back by the intense heat. Meanwhile, the boy in the bedroom died of smoke inhalation. The jokesters are charged with felony arson for the August 12th tragedy.
Both the VTU massacre and recent alcohol-related deaths have sparked intense debate within the higher education industry. Many of us who work in that industry believe that we must reassess how we handle risk management on our campuses. Think about it: a college campus is in essence a small town — some universities might qualify as small cities — populated primarily by 18-20 year-olds. They have to be safely housed, fed, entertained, … oh, yeh, and educated.
“Animal House” has become an American film classic. The movie may also be well on its way to becoming an American artifact. Don’t misunderstand me. Plenty of booze will be guzzled on the nation’s campuses again this academic year. But the winds of change are blowing across many college quads. Indictments of some students and even administrators, when alcohol abuse resulted in student fatalities, are having their impact. Additionally, a predictable trickle-down effect from the heightened security-consciousness following the VTU tragedy is a general tightening up of law enforcement in higher ed.
The students were still excited when they came to our campuses last week. If we do it right, they won’t notice many of the new security steps we’ve taken, such as closed-circuit cameras at key locations. But many will encounter a panoply of new rules and regulations, ranging from tougher sanctions for alcohol violations to the imposition of resident directors in Greek houses.
Yes, Virginia, there is still fun to be had at college. But the light-hearted irresponsibility of the “Animal House” era… my era… is gone for good.
Jim Castagnera, formerly of Jim Thorpe, is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University and a 2007-08 Fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.