Last updateTue, 30 Sep 2014 7am

ACLU Requests Records from Superintendent’s Social Media Monitoring

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

According to some reports from the Alabama Media Group and its "Huntsville Times" franchise, the Huntsville City schools, under the direction of Superintendent Casey Wardynski, has spent up to $595,000 systematically reviewing the social media accounts of students who attend the public school system. Responding to concerns that perhaps rights have been violated there, the ACLU of Alabama has formally requested records about the school system’s intelligence gathering program, SAFe.

Randall Marshall, the legal director of the ACLU of Alabama said in a written statement, “The ACLU is concerned about the systemic monitoring of student speech across the country. We are pursuing this issue by a public records request to the Huntsville City Schools to gather more information about its practices. They have yet to respond and if they continue to ignore our requests, we may have to take legal action to obtain the records.”

Schools teach many lessons about life. They teach academic subjects like, reading, writing, math, history, science, computing, etc.  Schools also teach life lessons that translate to a lifetime in the working world including, do what you are told to do, don’t be late, at least look busy, trouble makers will be punished, and now (in an increasing number of schools) you can be punished severely for what you do on social media by your school or employer even when not at your school or employer.

While in theory, Americans are endowed by God and their Constitution with freedom of speech, we all know that if we say something bad about an employer or something which an employer finds offensive, especially if it is in a format that can be printed off as "evidence" or shared 500 times in an electronic format, that there could be potentially severe repercussions at our job. In theory, we could write something on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account that is, really offensive, blatantly racist, threatening, and/or outright disturbing and there is nothing the government can do about it; but that doesn’t mean we will have our spouse, our friends, or our job after we did that.

Public schools, however, are a gray area. The government requires by law that we educate our children and even provides free public schools for that to happen if we are unable or unwilling to pay for it ourselves. Obviously, the children at those schools have to sacrifice some of their freedoms for the sake of order in the classroom. God may have endowed us with freedom of speech and that may be guaranteed by the Constitution; but that does not mean you can exercise that right while the class is taking a math test. How far does the government school’s authority extend? We have First Amendment speech rights to express our ideas in photos. We have a Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.  Taking a picture of us while we are bearing our Constitutionally protected weapons and posting that to Facebook is our First Amendment right...but as some Huntsville students found out that can get you expelled from school, even though the photos were not taken on school grounds.

According to original reporting by the "Huntsville Times" Challen Stephens, Supt. Wardynski claims that an agent with the National Security Agency (NSA) reported a student for chatting with bad characters in the Middle Eastern County of Yemen about wanting to hurt a teacher. Based on that tip school officials searched that student’s vehicle, found a knife, and expelled the potential juvenile terrorist. NSA monitors international communications, especially in a state like Yemen where known terrorist groups operate, as part of the ongoing war on terror, although school security is not normally part of NSA’s mission and the NSA will not acknowledge that that conversation ever took place.

Following that incident, Supt. Casey Wardynski then took the initiative to implement and oversee a massive spy apparatus aimed at students in Huntsville’s schools.  The program, Huntsville Schools calls SAFe, uses social media to search for warnings of potential violence and signs of gang activity.

Several students have reportedly been expelled based on the content of their social media postings, including some who were posing with handguns.

Advocacy Group Draws Attention to High AIDS Rate in Birmingham

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is making an effort to draw attention to the fact that Birmingham, Alabama has 17th Highest Rate of HIV Infection in the entire Nation. The group says that they are trying to advance awareness of the epidemic in Birmingham, reduce the stigma of testing positive for the disease and get more people that are infected the treatments that they need.

According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control, Birmingham ranks 17th of all major metropolitan areas with a high rate of HIV infection per 100,000 people.  According to a 2014 HRC survey, reducing the stigma of HIV/AIDS is a top priority for LGBT people in Alabama.

HRC Alabama Director R. Ashely Jackson said in a written statement, “The main reason HIV continues to spread is because of stigma. By talking openly about HIV, we take it out of silence. We must have these conversations about maintaining good health.”

Director Jackson said, “Rates of transmission are especially high among young gay and bisexual men of color and transgender women. Often, they are unable to seek healthcare because of stigma, discrimination and social barriers that are largely out of their control.”

The CDC report is based on data collected in 2011 and includes people from across the country with a diagnosis of HIV infection regardless of the disease’s stage. According to the CDC, Atlanta has the worst metropolitan area for the illness in the South at (#8) nationally, followed by Dallas at (#16), and Birmingham at (#17). Even though the AIDS threat has been well documented according to the CDC, another 50,000 people become HIV positive each year.

The HRC, in partnership with the Greater Than AIDS campaign, produced an information guide to engage the LGBT community about ways to confront HIV, including use of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis).  PrEP involves taking a once-daily pill to reduce the risk of acquiring HIV.  It is an FDA-approved prescription medication sold under the brand name Truvada.  Many private insurance companies and Medicaid cover PrEP.

The HRC and the CDC urge everyone to get educated on the basics about HIV/AIDS, including information on how to protect yourself and others and share that information with your friends and family members including using social media.

When first confronted with the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, most of us believed an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence, now there are more treatment options than ever before.

Jackson said, “Now we have more resources available to prevent and treat HIV than ever before.  Early diagnosis and treatment can dramatically improve health, extend life and help prevent the spread of the disease.”

According to a 2014 survey of LGBT Alabamians 46 percent don’t consider their doctor LGBT-friendly and 40 percent have experienced harassment in public establishments. HRC Alabama is working across the state to change hearts and minds, advance enduring legal protections and build more inclusive intuitions.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) describes themselves as the nation’s largest civil rights organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.


McClendon Emphasizes that Republican Turnout is Critical in November 4 Election

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Thursday, September 25, the St. Clair County Republican Party leadership met at the St. Clair County Courthouse in Ashville.

State Representative Jim McClendon (R) from Springville addressed the group about the importance of getting out the vote for the November 4th Election. Rep. Jim McClendon is the Republican nominee for Alabama Senate District 11, which represents much of St. Clair County as well as portions of Talladega and Shelby County.

Rep. McClendon said that he has a Democratic opponent in November so, “Getting out the vote in St. Clair County is a big deal...We have conservative folks here” (in St. Clair County) but it is important that they turnout.

Rep. McClendon that the budget crisis is real and it is really looming over the State going forward. “There is no more one time money” (the budget was propped up these last three years by raiding the Alabama Trust Fund,) McClendon said that the mentality of the leadership is that, “We are not looking for more money.” McClendon said that they plan to continue to trim budgets and are looking for ways to right-size Alabama’s budget.

The St. Clair County Republican Party Chairman is prominent Pell City attorney, Lance Bell. Bell said that McClendon’s opponent is for legalizing drugs and supports an agenda that won’t go over well with the people of St. Clair County.

Rep. McClendon faces marijuana advocate, Ron Crumpton (D) in the fall General Election.

Alabama State Senator Phil Williams (R) from Rainbow City was also at the meeting.

Chairman Lance Bell said, “We need him (Sen. Williams) back in Montgomery. We have got to do whatever we can to make sure that his opponent (former Sen. Larry Means) does not go back to Montgomery.”

Sen. Williams introduced his campaign manager, Roger Rogers, and his wife of 28 years, Charlene.

William said that he lives in Rainbow City and St. Clair County is right in his backyard.

Williams said that after redistricting Steele, Chandler Mountain, part of Ashville, and the top half of Ragland are in his Senate District 10, which also includes Etowah, Cherokee, and part of Dekalb County.

Sen. Williams said, “I am a very conservative Republican.  I was raised that way be my dad.”

Williams is a Colonel in the Alabama National Guard. He served in Afghanistan in 2002 and was in Iraq in 2004.

Sen. Williams passed around a photo of elected leaders he worked with in Iraq. One of them was assassinated and another survived an assassination attempt but was never the same.

Sen. Williams said that he ran for office in 2010, because, “I did not like what I was seeing in state politics...If they can run for office with a threat of death (in Iraq) there is no reason why I can’t run.”
 Williams said that he was heavily involved in the ministry, before deciding to go back to law school. Chairman Lance Bell was one of his classmates.

Sen. Williams said that his race is, “The most competitive race in the state Senate.” Williams said that his opponent, Larry Means, is a lifelong Democrat and as a Senator he, “Did a lot of things I thought were wrong.”

Williams said that he is polling ahead of Means and he is outraising fundraising him as well, but “I need y'all in St. Clair County to turn out.”

Sen. Williams said that Senate District 10 includes the southern half of Collinsville in a line to Crossville in Dekalb County.

Chairman Bell said that Williams needs some help in St. Clair County and asked for somebody to come forward and hold an event for Williams in Ragland.

Williams said that he has had good support from St. Clair County citizens to this point and thanked the Bogies in Ashville for holding a couple of fundraisers for him already and said that he recently spoke to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans at the Inzer Museum in Ashville.

Williams said that he has been endorsed by the St. Clair County Farmer’s Federation and has received a new batch of signs in today and needs people to take signs.

Rep. McClendon said, “The last thing we need is Larry Means.”

Bell said, “Larry Means and that group is how we got in that (fiscal) mess.”

Chairman Lance Bell said that St. Clair County Superintendent Jenny Seals (R) has a Democrat opponent and asked everybody there to help Seals.

Supt. Seals said, “I am trying to be good and not say anything negative (about her opponent).”

Rep. Mack Butler (R) from Rainbow City said, “Thank you for standing with me (in the Republican Primary in June where he defeated a well funded opponent).”

Chairman Bell asked the group for volunteers to work a GOP booth at the Moody Octoberfest on October 4 and said that the Democrats would be staging their own booth there.


Huntsville School Superintendent Tells Media that Spy Convinced him to Spy on Kids Social Media Use

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Under the U.S. Constitution, the schools are supposedly under the direct purview of state government and answer to the local school board, NOT the federal government and under U.S. law, our intelligence agencies like the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and the NSA (National Security Agency) are not supposed to be involved in spying directly on Americans….or getting them expelled from school.

Normally, investigating potential threats to an Alabama school would be the duty of law enforcement agencies like the Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to handle.

Despite this, Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski is claiming that 18 months ago some unknown employee at the NSA violated numerous agency protocols and likely a federal law or two to warn them school about a student’s social media messages in which he allegedly admitted wanting to injure a teacher.

According to original reporting by the Huntsville Times’ Challen Stephens, Supt. Wardynski said that based on the tip school officials searched that student’s vehicle, found a knife, and expelled the potential juvenile terrorist.  Wardynski said the student was reportedly chatting with persons in Yemen and told them that he wanted to injure a teacher.  Since NSA monitors international traffic, especially in a state like Yemen, where known terrorist groups operate, the communications were allegedly intercepted by the NSA.

The Huntsville Times reports that following that incident, Supt. Casey Wardynski then took the initiative to implement and oversee a massive spy apparatus aimed at students in Huntsville’s schools.

An NSA spokeswoman, Vanee Vines, told the Huntsville Times that the phone call to the principal in Alabama is a violation of agency protocols.  Vines said, “The National Security Agency has no record that it passed any information to the Huntsville school district, and the description of what supposedly occurred is inconsistent with NSA’s practices...Moreover, NSA does not make recommendations regarding school safety programs.”

Wardynski then took the initiative to direct his employees to systematically monitor the social media communication of students on social media sites.  The vigilant district-created program is called SAFe, which stands for “Students Against Fear,” which is run by three school system employees headed by a former FBI agent.

SAFe uses social media to search for warnings of potential violence and signs of gang activity.

At this time there is no word on whether or not Wardynski ever detailed his dealings with the federal spy agency with state officials like State Superintendent Tommy Bice.  School board members claim that they knew nothing about SAFe or presumably the ‘secret agent man’ that allegedly does work on the side as the school’s guardian angel. Was this operation run on a "need to know" basis like real intelligence agency operations?

Several students have reportedly been expelled based on the content of their social media postings.

What is probably the most troubling about this is not the revelations about the program, but rather the uncomfortable thought that perhaps we live in a time of gangs, school shooters, violence against women, drugs, etc. that likely makes school systems create their own intelligence bureau somehow justifiable and perhaps even necessary.  Do students have a "Right to Privacy" or a "Presumption of Innocence?"  Perhaps, sadly the answer is no they do not.


NASA finds Planet with Water Vapor and Clear Atmosphere

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

In a statement on Wednesday, the U.S. National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) announced that astronomers using data from three of NASA's space telescopes -- Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler have discovered clear skies and steamy water vapor on a gaseous planet outside our solar system. According to NASA scientists, the planet is about the size of Neptune, making it the smallest planet from which molecules of any kind have been detected.

The assistant administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, John Grunsfield said in a statement, “This discovery is a significant milepost on the road to eventually analyzing the atmospheric composition of smaller, rocky planets more like Earth. Such achievements are only possible today with the combined capabilities of these unique and powerful observatories.”

NASA said that clouds in a planet’s atmosphere can block the view to underlying molecules that reveal information about the planet’s composition and history. Finding clear skies on a Neptune-size planet is a good sign that smaller planets might have similarly good visibility.

Jonathan Fraine with the University of Maryland at College Park who wrote the study said, “When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say 'clear skies' to mean good luck. In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That's lucky for us because it means clouds didn't block our view of water molecules.”

The planet, HAT-P-11b, is categorized as an exo-Neptune - a Neptune-sized planet that orbits the star HAT-P-11. It is 120 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. The planet orbits extremely close to its star. It orbits around its sun in just five days.  It is a hot planet NASA thinks has a rocky core and gaseous atmosphere.

This is not the first time that NASA has discovered water vapor in the atmosphere of an exo-planet but then it was in larger Jupiter-like planets which are much easier to see because of their size and relatively inflated atmospheres. In fact, researchers already have detected water vapor in the atmospheres of those planets.  The fewer smaller planets that have been observed are more difficult to probe partially because they all appeared to be cloudy.

The astronomers used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, and a technique called transmission spectroscopy, to observe starlight as it filters through the rim of the planet's atmosphere to detect the water vapor. Molecules like water vapor will absorb some of the starlight, leaving distinct signatures in the light that reaches the telescopes.

The team used Kepler and Spitzer to figure out that the water vapor was coming from the planet and not the starspots on the nearby star.  The team figured out that the starspots were too hot to have any steam.

Heather Knutson with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who co-authored the study said, "We think that exo-Neptunes may have diverse compositions, which reflect their formation histories.  Now with data like these, we can begin to piece together a narrative for the origin of these distant worlds."

HAT-P-11b is blanketed in water vapor, hydrogen gas and likely other yet-to-be-identified molecules.

Drake Deming with the University of Maryland who also co-authored the study said, "We are working our way down the line, from hot Jupiters to exo-Neptunes.  We want to expand our knowledge to a diverse range of exoplanets."

The astronomers plan to examine more exo-Neptunes in the future, and hope to apply the same method to super-Earths - massive, rocky planets up to 10 times the mass of Earth. There is not one in this solar system but Kepler has found many of them around other stars. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2018, will search the super-Earths for signs of water vapor and other molecules.  NASA said that actually finding signs of oceans and potentially habitable worlds is likely a ways off.

Dr. Knutson said, "The work we are doing now is important for future studies of super-Earths and even smaller planets, because we want to be able to pick out in advance the planets with clear atmospheres that will let us detect molecules."

NASA’s Marshal Space Flight Center in Huntsville was responsible for designing and building the Hubble Space Telescope which is in the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame for its continuing achievements in the world of scientific discovery.



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