Heckling is nothing new; crowds in America have booed and otherwise interrupted speakers for centuries, whether they be international leaders, politicians, or even—as we saw last week—soldiers serving overseas. But the conviction of a group of students in a Southern California courtroom last week suggests that prosecutors will pursue some hecklers like criminals.

On Friday, a jury convicted 11 students from the University of California–Irvine and the University of California–Riverside of misdemeanor charges for disrupting a public meeting. The charges against the "Irvine 11" stemmed from their heckling of the Israeli Ambassador to the US during a speech in February 2010. After the verdict, an Orange County judge sentenced the students to three years probation and community service.

The conviction, which stirred up controversy nationwide, smacks of increased limits on free speech. Legal experts, however, are divided on the issue.

Throughout the trial, which lasted eight days, prosecutors alleged that the Irvine 11 conspired to "shut down" Oren's speech, infringing on his First Amendment rights. "Free speech is not absolute. It does not include the right to suppress or cancel another person's right to free speech. If it did, then no one would have the right to free speech," Dan Wagner, an assistant district attorney for Orange County, argued during the trial. According to the OC Weekly, Wagner pointed to the 10 defendants (one student will have charges dropped after he completes community service), and said, "Who is the censor in this case? Right there—10 of them." Predictably, the Irvine 11's defense team also invoked the First Amendment, saying the students were simply utilizing their First Amendment right to protest. "Protest is messy, but it's beautiful. This is how democracy survives," Jacqueline Goodman, an attorney for the students, told the jury

Voters at their polling site in in Selma, Alabama, in 2008.

Last Wednesday, the district court of the District of Columbia threw out a challenge to Section Five of the Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs, a coalition of conservative legal groups from Shelby County, Alabama, argued that Section Five, which requires a number of southern states to pre-clear changes to their electoral procedures with the Department of Justice, was illegal because it seeks to correct a problem—the mass disenfranchisement of minorities—that is supposedly nowhere near as pervasive as it was back in the glory days of Jim Crow. 

In its opinion, the court convincingly argued that Section Five provides a still-necessary bulwark against discrimination. But that hasn’t stopped the Project on Fair Representation—a Washington-based group that helped fund the Shelby County suit and similar efforts around the country—from pushing back.

In an interview with the Shelby County Reporter on Friday, Edward Blum, the group's director, all but vowed that Shelby County will appeal the decision and take its case to the Supreme Court. Blum praised the plaintiffs' states'-rights cajones, arguing that Shelby County has been forced to expend "significant taxpayer dollars, time and energy" to clear its election laws with the DOJ in accordance with Section Five. And that's just not fair:

"The County Commission and the officials of Shelby County were very judicious and far-sighted in recognizing that not only was Shelby County being punished for sins of their grandfathers or in some cases great-grandfathers, but the entire state of Alabama was being punished, as well as most of the Deep South," Blum said.

"Courageous? Perhaps," he continued. "But I think they were trendsetters in recognizing that this law was really no longer necessary for Shelby County and all of Alabama."

Things are better than they used to be, so ease up, in other words. Blum's got a point: Literacy tests and poll taxes are illegal and, you know, lynchings are less frequent than they once were. Compelling Alabama and other preclearance states to spend tens of millions of dollars over the past few years to comply with Section Five ignores whatever progress has been made on the racial front, potentially singling out states in the South. For Blum and his ilk, Section Five doesn’t deal in the here and now.

But here's something that does deal in the here and now: The spate of voter ID laws, Shelby County-esque pre-clearance cases, and Section Five challenges cropping up around the country, implicitly geared towards depriving minorities of the right to vote. If Blum is going to defend the Deep South on the basis that things are getting better all the time, he also needs to account for the fact that these very real, very-in-the-moment instances of targeted voter suppression aggressively undermine his case that we don't need laws like Section Five.

Unfortunately, the sins of the father endure. Luckily, we have laws to address that sort of thing.

Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll

In all the hubbub over Hermain Cain's surprise victory at the Florida GOP jamboree last weekend, most national media missed a shocker from the festivities: Gov. Rick Scott's low-profile lieutenant came out of hiding to speechify against the persecution of Christians. Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll declared that "those who want to take God out of our country" have pushed The Da Vinci Code and acted like "dictators and socialist rulers," apparently referring to members of the media, politicians, or scientists, or all of the above.

Carroll made the fiery sermon-like pronouncements at a meet-and-greet for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a religious conservative lobbying group that's the brainchild of Christian Coalition architect Ralph Reed. "Ladies and gentlemen, Christianity is in a fight, and it is one of the greatest trials we have seen in modern times," Carroll told the crowd (full video below). She continued:

Many in the media would like nothing better (than) to ridicule Christians. They promote The Da Vinci Code, they place doubt in the public's mind that Christ was not risen, and they condemn The Passion of Christ. Yet they sensationalize stories that call for the end of prayer in school and removing the name of God from our country's pledge.

Sunday's 60 Minutes' profile of New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's efforts to boost the NYPD's counterterrorism capabilities was a practically a promotional video for the department. A recent story by the Associated Press revealed both the NYPD's CIA-assisted surveillance of the city's Muslim community and the relative lack of oversight of the department in comparison to its federal counterparts. (The FBI was reportedly so concerned about the legality of the NYPD's program that it refused to accept information that came out of it.) But 60 Minutes didn't have a critical word to say about Kelly's efforts—nor did they even mention that the program existed.

That's not to say 60 Minutes didn't discuss the NYPD's relationship to the Muslim community: They did point out that the NYPD hosts cricket games for Muslim youths in the city. But they didn't mention that after the NYPD denied the existence of the surveillance program, the AP followed-up with documents showing that the department "maintained a list of 28 countries that, along with 'American Black Muslim,' it considered "ancestries of interest." Undercover agents "were then told to participate in social activities such as cricket matches and visit cafes and clubs," the AP explained. 

Likewise, 60 Minutes breathlessly reported that the NYPD has officers working in foreign countries gathering intelligence, but didn't note that those officers operate with close to zero oversight from the City Council or any other legislative body. Jeff Stein reported last year that the NYPD nearly caused an incident when, in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 subway bombings in London, NYPD officers forwarded the details to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Kelly, who then held a press conference on the subject:

The British, famously secretive about their investigations, were furious, Fuentes said. "They were going to kick everybody out, including the FBI. The American ambassador is calling the FBI—'What's the story? Who are these guys? Are they with you?' 'No, they're independent.'" Scotland Yard, Special Branch and other British officials, albeit furious, Fuentes said, held their tongues, because "they didn’t want to create a diplomatic incident with Kelly and Bloomberg and New York City."

Those weren't the only omissions—the entire 60 Minutes piece was practically an infomercial for Kelly. The segment marveled at the extent of the NYPD's ability to monitor most of lower Manhattan by video camera, uncritically documented the random train stops where NYPD officers walk up and down the train staring at people as though a potential terrorist will simply crack and throw themselves at the NYPD's mercy, and never questioned the wisdom of having thousands of officers carry around radiation detectors so sensitive they can tell when you've had chemo. The show wasn't the slightest bit interested in examining how much of what Kelly was doing actually deterred terrorism, or how much of it might violate people's basic individual rights. Reassuring everyone that not a single dollar spent on Keeping Us Safe is ever wasted or misused seemed to be the order of the day.

Most of the response to 60 Minutes' Kelly profile has focused on Kelly's statement that the NYPD has the capability to "take down an aircraft" if necessary—implying just how far Kelly is willing to go to prevent another 9/11—style attack from happening. In keeping with the general tone of the segment, 60 Minutes didn't seem to think "What who would possibly give the NYPD the authority to do that?" was a question even worth asking. Because taking down a plane—I mean how COOL is that?

Rep. Michele Bachmann.

It was Herman Cain, Republican presidential long-shot, who stole the headlines this weekend when he won the Florida Straw Poll with 37 percent of the 2,700 people who voted. Cain trounced both Texas Gov. Rick Perry, with 15 percent, who pushed hard for a victory in Florida, and Mitt Romney, with 14 percent, who was much less of a presence at the event.

But more shocking than Cain's victory (and Perry's defeat) was the utter collapse of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Somehow, in a state chock full of tea party groups, Bachmann finished dead last, with 1.5 percent of the vote. Once a frontrunner in early GOP presidential polls, Bachmann has sunk so far, so fast that even moderate Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign imploded months ago, placed higher than her. It's all unraveling for Michele.

Bachmann has been in free fall for weeks. She's barely registered in the past three presidential debates, outshone and outslugged by Perry and Romney. And when Bachmann did put points on the board by highlighting Perry's ties to pharmaceutical giant Merck as an underlying factor in his ill-fated human papilloma virus vaccination mandate, she overshadowed those remarks by suggesting soon after that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. (It absolutely does not.) The public and the pundits quickly forgot about Bachmann's Merck comments as she doubled down her vaccine-retardation claim. Later, a former campaign adviser ripped her for making the claim in the first place.

That adviser, veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins, said Bachmann's chances of claiming the nomination are slim. Although she has a shot at winning the Iowa caucuses—she did, of course, win the Iowa Straw Poll in August—Rollins said Bachmann lacks the "resources or ability at this point in time" to challenge for the nomination after Iowa. Her last-place finish in Florida raises questions about whether even winning Iowa is realistic for Bachmann, especially given Rick Perry's support among the social conservatives who dominate the GOP in the Hawkeye State.

Before joining the Bachmann campaign full-time in June (he's since stepped down to an advisory role), Rollins' assessment of Bachmann was that he didn't consider her a legitimate candidate for the GOP nomination. "Michele Bachmann obviously is a member of Congress and a representative of the tea party," Rollins told CNN in January. "But at the end of the day, we have to get our serious players out front and talking about the things that matter to be the alternative to the president and Democrats." Despite the brief Bachmann craze this summer, it looks like Rollins was right all along.

Court papers filed by the Department of Justice late Friday afternoon accuse the Texas redistricting plan signed by Governor Rick Perry of being drawn in a way that minimizes the impact of the minority vote. According to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, certain covered jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting—including Texas—must submit changes in election law to the Justice Department for "preclearance."

Referring to Texas' congressional redistricting plan, the filling states that while "The United States has not yet determined whether the proposed plan has any purpose or purposes that are prohibited by Section 5," that "it appears that the proposed plan may have a prohibited purpose in that it was adopted, at least in part, for the purpose of diminishing the ability of citizens of the United States, on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group, to elect their preferred candidates of choice to Congress." The crux of the Department of Justice's argument is that, deliberately or not, two districts in Texas, 23 and 27, have been altered so as to reduce the influence of Latino voters in those districts. Since the Voting Rights Act prohibits changes that would have the "purpose or effect" of discriminating against minorities, DoJ is saying the plan violates Section 5.

As for whether or not this impact was by design, DoJ says they aren't ruling it out, but that the "investigation is on-going."

Tech. Sgt. Sam Pastor fires an Mk48 Sept. 10, 2011, at the off-base firing range near Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan. Pastor is a vehicle maintainer with the Laghman Provincial Reconstruction Team. (US Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane)

A man holds a Bahraini flag outside the White House.

Less than three months after including Bahrain on a list of human rights offenders requiring the United Nations' attention, the Obama administration seems to have changed its mind. The US now believes Bahrain is "an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East," according to a statement from the Defense Department, which intends to sell $53 million worth of military equipment and support to the Gulf state, including bunker buster missiles and armored vehicles.

"This is exactly the wrong move after Bahrain brutally suppressed protests and is carrying out a relentless campaign of retribution against its critics," said Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch, which flagged the sale yesterday. "By continuing its relationship as if nothing had happened, the US is furthering an unstable situation."

McFarland was referring, of course, to the Bahraini government's crackdown earlier this year against peaceful protesters, primarily Shiites, who momentarily captured the West's attention with their demands for greater political, social, and economic rights from the ruling Sunni monarchy. In response, state security forces killed over 30 people and arrested some 1,400 more. Many were reportedly tortured.

The heavy-handed tactics succeeded in crushing the initial wave of protests, but the situation remains volatile. Police continue to violently repress anti-government activists; on Friday, they fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters during a demonstration ahead of tomorrow's parliamentary by-elections.

With the exception of its statement at the UN and tepid condemnation from the White House, the US has refrained from publically criticizing its longtime ally, which hosts the Navy's Fifth Fleet. In 2010 alone, the US approved more than $200 million in arms sales to Bahrain. Although the proposed $53 million deal is the first since last November, it will almost certainly go through, a Defense Department spokesman told Mother Jones. That's because Congress would have to pass specific legislation to stop the sale—an unusual, if not unprecedented, action.

How exactly selling arms to this island kingdom of around a half-million citizens will "contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States," as the Defense Department announcement claims, is unclear. The State Department, to which DOD referred that question, has yet to respond.* But whatever the explanation, McFarland argues, the move casts a shadow on the US's professed support for the ideals of the Arab Spring. "It will be hard for people to take US statements about democracy and human rights in the Middle East seriously when, rather than hold its ally Bahrain to account, it appears to reward repression with new weapons," she said.


* Update: A State Department official did eventually respond via email to point out that the sale of such weapons improves Bahrain's capability to counter armored threats and that the State Department continues to closely monitor the human rights situation inside Bahrain.

One particularly telling moment at Thursday night's Republican presidential debate came from co-host and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. Speaking to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Kelly repeated a common, if medically inaccurate, anti-abortion talking point:

Congressman Paul, you have said that you believe that life begins at conception and that abortion ends an innocent life. If you believe that, how can you support a rape exception to abortion bans, and how can you support the morning-after pill? Aren't those lives just as innocent?

Let's leave aside the suggestion that we should force women to carry the children of rapists to term and just deal with the premise that using the morning-after pill, or plan B, constitutes taking an "innocent" life. Well, no, not based on any medical definition of pregnancy. Pregnancy doesn't begin until the fertilized egg implants in a woman's uterus. This is exactly what the pill is designed to prevent. Thus, no pregnancy to end.

Let's let the Mayo Clinic explain:

Depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle, the morning-after pill can prevent or delay ovulation, block fertilization, or keep a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

If that's the case, then by Kelly's standard, any kind of birth control or even just having your period could constitute abortion, too.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R).

Alex Nicholson, a former Army Intelligence Officer who was discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell and was one of the plaintiffs in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, harshly criticized Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum for his remarks on DADT during Thursday night's GOP Presidential debate. When a gay soldier serving in Iraq, Steven Hill, asked the candidates whether they would reinstate DADT, Santorum expressed his support for doing so, saying that ending the policy granted gays and lesbians "special privileges."

"Rick Santorum has never volunteered to serve our country for one single day in uniform. With the number of armed conflicts in which our country has been engaged throughout his lifetime, he has never volunteered to trade his loafers for combat boots or his briefcase for a rucksack and share in the burden of taking up arms to defend this country," Nicholson said. "Stephen Hill has not only done that, but he was actually doing it in Iraq at the very moment when [Santorum] chose to take cheap political shot at Hill and at over 1 million gay and lesbian servicemembers and veterans who have actually volunteered to serve their country in uniform.... Men and women in the military have a term for people like Rick Santorum - Blue Falcon. He should Google it." (The term refers to people who create problems they leave for others to solve.)

As my colleague Tim Murphy noted, not only were there scattered boos in the audience in response to Hill's question, but not a single candidate on stage thanked Hill for his service or responded negatively to the boos. In a follow-up appearance on Fox News on Friday, Santorum said he hadn't heard the boos from the stage and that "I condemn the people who booed that gay soldier...I thank [Hill] for his service to our country. I’m sure he's doing an excellent job. I hope he is safe, and I hope he returns safely, and does his mission well."

Nicholson, now Director of Servicemembers United, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian soldiers and their families, was discharged after a colleague read a letter he had written to a former boyfriend—the letter was written in Portugese to avoid it being casually discovered—and revealed to others in his unit that Nicholson was gay. Asked whether he was disappointed by the silence of the other candidates, Nicholson merely shrugged that, "I think in order to be disappointed you first have to have an expectation. I had no expecatation that most of these candidates would put themselves out on a limb on this issue beyond the statements that some have given that it is a settled issue."