ACLU to the rescue
Betty Murray, the elderly, wheelchair-bound whistleblower, who received an eviction notice last month after talking to the Arkansas Times about her concerns over malfunctioning fire alarms during a deadly May 5 fire at Cumberland Towers, still has a roof over her head — for the time being. The ACLU, in the person of ACLU attorney Grif Stockley, has taken on her case, and will be representing Murray when she goes for a grievance hearing June 16 at the Little Rock Housing Authority’s Wolfe Street office. Murray had previously been slated for eviction June 6. A presumably impartial officer from the Conway Housing Authority will preside over the hearing.
In interviews with the Arkansas Times, several survivors of the Cumberland Towers fire have backed up Murray’s allegations, reporting that alarms in their apartments never went off, or only went off after the hallways and stairwells were filled with smoke. A report released last week by the Little Rock fire marshal’s office said the alarm system in the building “activated as it was designed to do” on May 5.
Stockley said that the ACLU became involved because Murray’s case is a “clear case of retaliation” by the Little Rock Housing Authority. “She has raised issues of public concern,” Stockley said. “That’s what the definition of protected speech is.”
Religion and prison
The Arkansas Department of Correction is expecting legal fallout from last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on a law that allows for greater religious freedom for inmates, but the ADC doesn’t plan to change policies.
In a unanimous decision, the Court upheld the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Signed in 2000, the law — among other things — requires states to allow for the beliefs and practices of religious prison inmates unless a compelling reason exists to stop them.
Dina Tyler of the Correction Department said that though lawsuits and legal challenges to ADC policy will most likely result from the decision, the law’s coda allowing prisons to forbid any practice that might be a security issue means the department won’t be changing rules any time soon.
As an example, Tyler commented on an inmate who claims he has been denied the fruits of good behavior because of his refusal — on religious grounds, he says — to shave his beard or cut his hair. In addition to allowing for the smuggling of contraband, Tyler said, long locks could be classified as a security risk because they might help an escaped inmate evade capture. Say an inmate gets his file photograph taken with long hair and a beard, she said. “Then, two hours before you run off, you cut your hair and shave your face. We pass that picture out that looks nothing like you. That’s our genuine security concern.”
Asked about the things like Wiccan spell books being mailed to inmates, Tyler said a publications review committee would have to look at them on a case-by-case basis. “We wouldn’t automatically ban it,” Tyler said. “We’d look at it.”
It’s official: “Dewayne Graham on Your Side,” the latest project by local investigative reporter/gadfly Dewayne Graham, is no more. The 30-minute, 6:30 p.m. show had aired weekdays on KWBF WB 42, and featured Graham trying to remedy complaints phoned in by disgruntled callers live on the air.
Doug Krile, corporate director of news and public relations with Equity Broadcasting, which owns WB 42, said that recent legal challenges by two other local stations were the reason behind the decision to pull the plug. First, KLRT Fox 16, Graham’s former employer, which he left last January, began threatening legal action over a non-compete clause they claimed was still in effect. Then, in April, another former employer, KATV Channel 7, objected to the use of the “On Your Side” name, on which they claimed to hold a service mark (Equity lawyers had argued that the service mark was for “7 On Your Side”).
“Because of the legal complications with KATV and KLRT,” Krile said, “we just weren’t able to move forward with the show.”
Tourist hot spot
Little Rock convention organizers continue to beam about good news. This week, the Poultry Federation returns for the first time in 29 years, bringing 4,000 people from the region. Soon, the League of United Latin American Citizens will bring another horde to town.
And there’s this: Little Rock is a finalist for the 2006 conclave of Omega Psi Phi, a national black fraternity whose members include Vernon Jordan and Michael Jordan. That event could bring 8,000 or more. The Clinton Library and Central High School reportedly were important lures to the fraternity.
And speaking of the Poultry Federation, which runs June 9-11:
The public this year is able to purchase tickets to what had traditionally been private events — a Charlie Daniels concert Friday at the Statehouse Convention Center, a barbecue contest and buffet Saturday and an Alltel concert Saturday night by Lonestar.