A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Rape in the Military: “Is this a joke?”

By Halina Schiffman-Shilo

For the past several years, the Forum on Law, Culture, and Society has hosted a film festival at Fordham Law School featuring movies that, in some way, focus on the intersection between law and society. After each screening, the Forum’s director, law professor and author Thane Rosenbaum, hosts a discussion featuring actors, producers, attorneys, or the people who inspired the film.

Even though I knew it would be a hard to watch, I opted for The Invisible War, a documentary about rape in the military. I traveled up to the cozy theater on a crisp Saturday evening and found a seat, recognizing several people I knew in the audience. After a few opening remarks about the festival, Mr. Rosenbaum introduced the film and the panel. Present that evening were attorney Susan L. Burke; Maria Cuomo Cole, one of the film’s executive producers; Rear Admiral Susan J. Blumenthal, a doctor and leading women’s health advocate; and former Airman First Class, survivor, and activist Jessica Nicole Hinves, who is featured in the film. Before the film began, the audience rose and applauded the panelists. And then the lights dimmed.

A synopsis: After a saccharine montage of military advertisements through the years encouraging women to join the armed forces, statistics on sexual assaults in the military flicker across the screen. In the next shot, we are face to face with survivors of those assaults telling their stories. The survivors are so riveting in sharing their personal histories, that for a while I forgot I was in a theater full of people, and felt that each of the speakers was talking directly to me.

The survivors’ accounts all share striking similarities. Reporting being raped did not lead to investigations, prosecutions, or even compassion. Instead, those reporting being raped suffered humiliation, professional retaliation, or further victimization, sometimes all three. All of the victims were deeply traumatized; they also were deeply betrayed.

As many of the women explain, there is a deep and strong bond between servicemen and women as they train, work, eat, celebrate, commemorate, and live side-by-side. They are, in the words of Ms. Hinves during the post-screening panel, “like a family.”

After being raped, members of the military are often further traumatized when their supervising officers, to whom they must report, accuse them of lying or of “asking for it.”  Some of the women in the documentary recount how they were raped by their supervising officer, leaving them with no one to report to, and vulnerable to further harassment or assault. As Ms. Hinves explained to us, supervising officers are the very people who are supposed to protect and help them when something goes wrong. Being rejected by a supervising officer is not only isolating, it causes the victims to question their own memory and judgment.

In May 2013, the Department of Defense released its annual report from the Pentagon detailing sexual assault in the military. The report estimated that reported assaults represent less than 15 percent of the assaults actually committed. In 2012, there were 3,374 complaints of sexual assault, which ranged from “abusive sexual conduct” to rape, involving service members as either victims or perpetrators. Of these complaints, fewer than ten percent went to trial.

As the documentary makes clear, rape in the military, and its accompanying enabling rape culture, is beyond pervasive, it’s an epidemic.

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When Seeking Help Can Get You Evicted

By Anthony Vento

There’s an ordinance in Norristown, Pennsylvania that says if the police are called to respond to “disorderly behavior” on a tenant’s property three times within a four month period, then the landlord must evict the tenant. If he doesn’t, he could lose his rental license.

Enter Pennsylvanian domestic abuse victim Lakisha Briggs. The New York Times recently reported the story of Ms. Briggs, a tenant in federally subsidized housing. Police responded to two domestic disputes at her home and warned her if they were called to her house once more, she would be evicted. Not long after the warning was issued, Ms. Briggs was attacked and severely injured by her boyfriend. Before slipping into unconsciousness, she plead with her neighbor not to call the police out of fear that she’d be evicted. Her condition was so bad though, that the neighbor called the police anyway.

Ms. Briggs’ fears were justified; the landlord brought eviction proceedings against her. Although reluctant to evict his tenant, he dared not risk losing his rental license.

The ACLU chose to represent Ms. Briggs arguing that the ordinance incentivizing landlords to evict “nuisance” tenants was illegal. Is the ACLU correct? Is the ordinance illegal, or can municipalities penalize landlords for not evicting tenants when police are called too frequently to their property?

LASIS investigates.

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Mugshots-for-Ransom: An Update

By LASIS Staff

A recent story by reporter Zachary Edelman analyzed the legalities of pay-for-us-to-remove-your-mugshot-off-our-websites businesses.

Our conclusion: “In reality, the websites aren’t exposing anything or anyone. Rather, the mug shots are public records that anyone could find if they knew where to look. The websites are simply putting the pictures into focus, if you will. This might not sound ethical. But it may well be legal.

“So Google is taking action. In response to complaints from victims of mug shot highway robbery, on October 3 Google changed its algorithm so that these pay-to-delete mug shot websites no longer appear near the top of Google’s search results. Some credit card companies have decided to discontinue service with these sites, as well. Without the ability to collect payments from individuals wanting their pictures removed, the sites may be forced out of business.

“And that might be a better solution, at least in the short term, than any court can offer. Because a picture isn’t worth anything if it doesn’t get the right exposure.”

In today’s New York Times, The Haggler updates us with some good news, some bad news, and a bit of irony to go with your Sunday brunch.

The good news: Some of these websites seem to have closed shop. And (with the exception of Visa) credit cards are refusing to have anything to do with processing payments for the mugshot-removal transactions.

The bad news: The attorney who brought the class action against the mug-shots has received a death threat via email. The person who sent the death threat, which apparently used the kind of language the New York Times doesn’t publish, also posted reviews of the attorney’s work on a consumer complaint website, accusing Mr. Ciolek of racism, alcoholism, and, according to The Haggler, “a few other isms.”

And the irony:  These consumer sites charge big bucks to remove such reviews. Mr. Ciolek, therefore, is now suffering the very same fate his clients have suffered. You’ve heard of Method Acting? Mr. Ciolek is now the poster child of Method Lawyering.

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The Way, Way Back…to the Courthouse?

By Noah Forrest

 “The Way, Way Back,” out now on DVD and on demand, is a charming coming-of-age story with some compelling legal quagmires that might not be apparent at first blush.

The film follows awkward 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who spends a summer vacationing with his mother (Toni Collette) at her new boyfriend’s beach house.  Duncan does not get along with Trent, his mother’s boyfriend. (Steve Carell, the nicest guy in Hollywood plays a snake of a man with admirable ease).  Trent belittles Duncan, at one point telling the young teenager matter-of-factly that in his estimation, on a scale of one to ten, young Duncan rates a “three.”  Miserable and alone, Duncan gets on a bike and visits a water park, where a free-spirited and kind manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell doing his best impression of Bill Murray in Meatballs), gives the boy a job.

The film is the directorial debut of actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who won Academy Awards for writing “The Descendants,” and they imbue the film with heart and humor. And, for this reporter, legal angles.

First, there is the scene when Mr. Carell’s character makes a move towards Duncan as if he was going to strike him; Trent is ultimately held back by the mother and friends.  But what if Trent had hit Duncan and the mother sanctioned it?  Would this be viewed as child abuse (because Trent was not married to Duncan’s mom), or would the law deem this to be part of acceptable parenting?  What if the corporal punishment was okayed by the parent?

Second, Duncan’s mother did not know that he was working at the waterpark. Nobody knew, or much cared, what Duncan did with his time, so long as he wasn’t moping around the house and getting in the way.  Is this kosher?  What happens if Duncan had been injured at the park?  Who is liable in that situation: the park owners for not requiring that Duncan receive his parent’s permission or the parent for being negligent?

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A Stacked Game of Cards

By José I. Ortiz

Autumn’s here, and with it, the Forum on Law, Culture and Society’s annual Film Festival at Fordham Law School. Coincidently, I  attended a film screening at this festival on the same date (October 22) last year. I found a seat (not easy in the filled-to-capacity room) and prepared for what was in store for me this time. I had never even heard of the evening’s film – “The Exonerated” – before seeing it up on the festival’s website.

Before long, Thane Rosenbaum — the film festival’s lively emcee and moderator of the post screening discussion — welcomed us and told us a bit about the film, which helped explain why I’d never heard of it: it was produced by and aired on a now defunct cable network, CourtTV. “Oh boy,” I thought. “This won’t be any good.” I was so wrong.

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