Tag Archives: grand island

Shane Kinney’s NRA Shirt and Your Rights

15 Mar

A public school cannot stop a kid from wearing this

The Bill of Rights in our Constitution – it’s easy to cherry-pick the parts of it you want to defend. It’s also easy to see who cherry-picks what. 

Western New Yorkers have tested the First Amendment on two occasions in the past few weeks. I highlighted one of them already – the efforts of a handful of people in the Clarence community to censor books, censor parts of the curriculum, and demagogue the disease prevention unit of the sex education curriculum. The other is Shane Kinney’s NRA t-shirt on Grand Island

Kinney was asked to remove a “Protected by Smith & Wesson” sweatshirt, and then to turn a pro-NRA t-shirt inside-out. The school apparently gave Kinney a suspension when he refused to do so. 

I don’t like the gun lobby, and I don’t like guns. I detest the gun culture in all of its incarnations. I don’t like Freudian allusions whereby one extols the virtue of self-protection with killing machines and their long, cold, hard shafts. As point of fact, I hate guns. 

That doesn’t mean Shane Kinney’s rights to free speech should be infringed. 

Eugene Volokh explains that at least one federal circuit has declared school prohibitions on shirts that display guns. The issue is a tricky one for schools. A school is a government entity, but it deals almost exclusively with minors. A school is well within its rights, for instance, to censor a child’s clothing if it, for instance, glorifies or promotes violence, drugs, alcohol, or some other inappropriate or harmful behavior. When it comes to guns, the Constitution is invoked, and it’s a matter of degrees. 

An NRA t-shirt that quotes an excerpt from the 2nd Amendment is completely acceptable in all aspects. There is nothing objectively controversial about it, regardless of whether or not you like guns. The issue in cases such as Kinney’s revolves around the depiction of actual firearms. Here, you run into an analysis that requires you to parse the definitions of terms like “disruption” and “violence”.  A picture of two crossed rifles is not a big deal. On the other hand, a t-shirt depicting, say, a trenchcoated figure using an assault rifle to shoot a schoolkid in the head would be patently objectionable. 

But if you look at the Grand Island school district’s own dress code, it doesn’t really say much about guns. It prohibits “vulgar” or “obscene” t-shirts, and clothing cannot “promote and/or endorse the use of alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs and/or encourage other illegal or violent activities”.  Courts use a case from the mid-60s to handle these sorts of issues. From the case Volokh cites,

Because most public school students are minors and school administrators have the duty to provide and facilitate education and to maintain order and discipline, the Supreme Court “has repeatedly emphasized the need for affirming the comprehensive authority of the States and of school officials, consistent with fundamental constitutional safeguards, to prescribe and control conduct in the schools.” Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 507, 89 S.Ct. 733, 21 L.Ed.2d 731 (1969). Consequently, while a public school student does not “shed [his] constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school-house gate,” id. at 506, those rights may be limited as long as the limitation is consistent with constitutional safeguards…

…”conduct by the student, in class or out of it, which for any reason — whether it stems from time, place, or type of behavior — materially disrupts class work or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.”Id. at 513, 89 S.Ct. 733. Accordingly, Tinker “requires a specific and significant fear of disruption, not just some remote apprehension of disturbance.” Saxe v. State Coll. Area Sch. Dist., 240 F.3d 200, 211 (3d Cir.2001). In sum, “if a school can point to a well-founded expectation of disruption — especially one based on past incidents arising out of similar speech — the restriction may pass constitutional muster.” Id. at 212.

Courts have upheld, for instance, students’ rights to wear black armbands to protest war, and also upheld a school’s ability to restrict or punish lewd and inappropriate language.

Arguably anything involving firearms is by definition “violent”, but in Kinney’s case, the firearms were merely depicted – in the image, they were not being fired at anyone or anything. The “protected by Smith & Wesson” sweatshirt was likely closer to the line, as it specifically invoked a threat of deadly force in response to a provocation. Even deadly force in self-defense is, by definition, violent, and under the “substantial disruption” standard in the Tinker case, that invocation of violence might be legally restricted, depending on whether the school could establish that the restriction was based on ” something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint,” and instead on whether the shirt would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”

I remember I was once handling a criminal matter in Massachusetts and a man with an Irish surname was being arraigned on an assault & battery charge. He had been arrested while wearing a Notre Dame jacket, which depicts an angry leprechaun with his fists up, waiting for a fight, and I thought to myself that it was an especially funny thing to be wearing under those circumstances. Does that belligerent Irish stereotype violate high school dress codes because it glorifies violence? I doubt any principal would punish a kid for that. 

But while local right-wing media have been milking this NRA shirt thing for a week now, even causing it to go national, they’ve been completely silent (as far as I can tell) as far as efforts to violate the 1st Amendment when it comes to banning award-winning literature in Clarence schools. They’ve not said anything about protecting the sex education unit recommending that kids who have sex use condoms to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. (Abstinence is part of the curriculum, incidentally, but not the entire curriculum because that would be insane). 

So, Shane Kinney should be free to wear his NRA t-shirt and probably even his Smith & Wesson t-shirt.  It’s not my favorite thing in the world, nor something I would send my kid to school in, but my sensibilities and opinions can’t be the arbiter of what is and is not appropriate or legal. The school district likely owes Kinney an apology. 

Escape the Urban: Greenway Project Tracking

31 Oct

If only natural resources had endowments. Mountain ranges and canyons. River and lakes. Lonely rocky beaches on cold, grey ocean shores. An endowment, in our monetized culture, would allow funds to be available for protection and clean up, access and restoration, enhancement for ease of recreation and enjoyment. Too good to be true? Amazingly no; it’s the situation Western New York is blessed with along the Niagara River now, and we’re only partially getting it right.

A quick rehash on the Niagara River Greenway Commission: created out of the NYPA relicensing agreement, this public body serves two functions. First, it sponsored and certified a report and plan on how to conserve, restore, develop and promote the Niagara River, from Buffalo to Old Fort Niagara. Plan complete, it now reviews projects from host communities and organizations for consistency with the plan, though it doesn’t spend any money itself. NYPA holds the purse strings, in the form of four committees, whose jurisdictional responsibilities are blurred, and procedures and competence vary widely.

But here’s the most important part. At $9 million a year, this is the biggest pot of development dollars in Western New York that no one talks about.

The Greenway Fund’s report card, from its three years of existence, is definitely mixed. Much has improved in the last year, so the grade at its two year anniversary would be far worse. Since I started reporting on the Greenway a year ago, the information on NYPA’s website has gotten considerably better. The committees have had three years to spend $27 million. Significantly less than that has been allocated, though following the exact dollar amounts is challenging, as reporting is spotty and inconsistent. Much has improved, though there is much more that needs to be done.

Meanwhile, questions continue to be raised about the direction and appropriateness of the fund’s chosen projects. The Chairman of the Greenway Commission himself, Bob Kresse, has publicly noted that while dollars are finally beginning to flow, they are being spent on items outside of the spirit of the Greenway Report’s vision, though not the letter of its unenforceable law. The $9 million a year was supposed to go for ecological restoration, and the creation of a unified greenbelt. Instead, it is being spent by local towns and municipalities on deferred maintenance of town parks, on restrooms and asphalt overlays. Kresse doesn’t have the power to stop it, and is asking for the law creating the Commission to be amended.

In the meantime, work is finally beginning on some good projects, in keeping with the original vision. The area the Greenway covers is broad and diverse, so I have selected three projects, from different geographical areas, to start tracking regularly, to provide a face to an obscure and complicated process.

Trail from Devil’s Hole to Lewiston – $2 Million ($210K of Greenway funds)

The most basic requirement for a unified greenway is a physical trail that runs its entire length, for biking, running and walking. Unfortunately, there is a very large hole in the current right-of-way, and in the most sought after spot. Currently, from the south, one can bike from the North Grand Island Bridge to Niagara Falls and on to Devil’s Hole, but no farther. Likewise, one can travel from Youngstown to Lewiston, along the lower river, but no further. The escarpment stands in the way, and there is no (official and legit) connection along the river from the Upper to the Lower. If any section begs for public access, it is this dramatic piece.

A Greenway project is finally fixing that, after nine (9!) years of debate, planning, controversy, and waiting for funding. Work begins this fall. 

Grand Island: Fisherman’s Landing – $400K (all Greenway funds)

The Town of Grand Island had the misfortunate of requesting funding from the Buffalo and Erie County standing committee, the poster child for delay and mismanagement. Now that the committee has finally hired Bank of America and the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo to watch and spend its money, dollars are flowing to build this park near the South Grand Island Bridge.

I recently had the chance to speak to Mary Cooke (R), councilwoman on Grand Island’s Town Board, about the project. The town wrote the grant to request funding in 2007, and received official approval in 2008, to remove the old decaying and graffiti-ed waste water treatment plant, plainly visible to all commuters just south of the massive bridges to Tonawanda. For two years the town waited for the committee to decide how to spend its money, until it finally arrived in mid-2010. A public meeting was held in July, and from the input, some additional green features have been added to the already planned park and fishing spot. Work is now slated to begin in 2011, two (if not potentially three) full construction seasons late.

Shoreline Trail Signage – $205K (all Greenway funds)

A trail is more than the packed dirt, rock or asphalt, that physically connects one location to another. It is also has its own sense of place, and is a thing unto itself. In the grandest examples, the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail, the ubiquitous yellow and white blazes are iconic themselves. So when the trail is finally complete from Brant to the northern mouth of the Niagara River, a key unifying feature will be the signage.

I attended a public meeting on October 19th about the plans for the signs. I will admit, I have little opinion about the exact color scheme, geometrical design, use of non-profit partner’s branding logos, or exact layout of informational versus directional signs. I am interested in them being complete, helpful, and installed. The process for the current crop of signs began in April of this year, and in June of 2011, a pilot section, from Scajaquada Creek to Isle View Park in North Tonawanda, should be installed. Designing the logo alone took six (6!) years, and replicates work done in labeling and branding the Riverwalk section (big wheeled bike, anyone) in Buffalo less than a decade ago. Unfortunately, only the pilot section is currently funded. But we are only three years into a fifty year funding protocol, so there is time (but not too much) to get this right. When complete, the signs will be identical, and thus bind together, 120 miles of shore-side trail.

I will provide regular updates on these projects as developments occur. If there are any other projects you would like me to stay on top of, dear Reader, so not hesitate to contact me (form in the upper right of this page).

Escape the Urban: Niagara Riverway

26 Sep

I took some of my own advice this week, and got another bike ride in before the weather turns for the year. Unfortunately, I chose the one rainy day all week to do it, and was quite waterlogged by the end. If the weather is warm enough, I prefer to bike without rain gear – you get wet either way, and at least you don’t have a jacket flapping in the wind.

Biking in the rain does not have to be altogether unpleasant; the crowds are less and the birds are more. I scared up a couple of Kingfishers perched on a dead tree in Buckhorn Island State Park early in my trip, and wove through fewer crowds even down by my popular turn around point.

I have made it no secret in this column that I consider the Niagara River, Falls, Gorge and Escarpment to be a  tragically underutilized outdoor playgrounds for local enthusiasts. Not every outdoor trip need be an epic journey to a far off destination. Sometimes, you just want to get a quick 15 or 20 mile trip in between hockey practice and Cub Scouts, and the key to maintaining that lifestyle is having quality trails and facilities nearby. I recently covered the Scajacquada Creek and Riverwalk trails in Buffalo – those offer excellent opportunities for many city and suburb dwellers. But if you live on the north end of town, on Grand Island, or in Niagara County, the trails along the northern section of the Niagara River offer nearby quality riding as well.

As an experiment this week, I biked directly from my house on the northern side of Grand Island to the edge of Niagara Falls, a 16.5 mile round trip. I have done extensive riding on the island (more on that in future columns), and in Niagara County, but I had never combined the two. The results were mixed, as you’ll see.

It does not take much street riding for me to access Buckhorn via East River Road. Grand Island is a popular destination for bikers of all persuasions – the loop around the island is a classic 26 mile road ride, and bike paths crisscross the interior sections (but rarely connect, much to my chagrin). If you are on a skinny wheel road bike, River Road and well marked bike paths will ultimately lead you to the North Grand Island Bridge, past the wet forests and marshlands of Buckhorn, including the habitat restoration area and Woods Creek that runs through it. Those rocking a mountain bike, or a fat tired hybrid like myself, can do the muddy back trail in Buckhorn along the Niagara River, from the eastern edge of the park on River Road, to the base of the bridge. This is my preferred route, along the rocky shore of the Niagara River, over the old concrete fishing bridge at Woods Creek, and then through massive black walnut groves and stands of ash overgrown with wild grape. Either way, after a smooth and straight road ride, or an idyllic solitary nature slog, the bridge crossing now faces you.

I regularly drive over the Grand Island bridges, but I never feel like I get enough time to enjoy the view. I was looking forward to a slower bike crossing, and a chance to appreciate the wide, low upper Niagara River, the terminus in the distance only an inauspicious cloud of spray and mist six miles away.

Unfortunately, I underestimated the length of the span (3/4 of a mile at this point), the time to cross, or the nerve racking hazards. While the view is wonderful, the traffic is not.  The signs advising you to walk your bike, and not ride, are there for a reason – the railing looks high enough when walking, but is precariously low when mounted on your ride. In addition, the constant semis and garbage trucks are safely on the other side of a barrier, but the buffeting wind adds to the disquiet; the Niagara River is a long way down. So while the biking on either side of the bridge is excellent, I wouldn’t blame you for skipping the span itself. It added a ten minute walk in each direction that I could have done without.

Fortunately, once the mighty bridge is crossed, the biking quality increases immediately. At the end of the bridge, go against your instincts, and make a right along the sidewalk, under the bridge ramp, and right again through the small parking area. This park is due for an upgrade with Greenway Funding, but in the meantime, you can still pick up the dedicated Riverway bike path right along the river, and head west towards the Falls.

The six mile run from the North Grand Island Bridge to the lip of the Falls, along the broad river, is one of the most scenic in our immediate metro area. The dichotomy, relics of industry to your right and the promise of a greener future to your left, is as obvious as it is hopeful. In recent years, a bevy of new industries have replaced some of the rusting polluters lined up along the river: silicon manufacturers for solar arrays, trash incinerators that not only spare the landfill, but recycle the metal content of most of Western New York’s trash. In the future, perhaps all of the industry will be as clean as the recently scrubbed water.

Snug between the Robert Moses and the blue river, the Riverway Trail provides regular landmarks and views. Soon the massive Power Authority water intakes come into view, two modern art sentinels with newly cleaned and refurbished skins. They stand on the site of the former Fort Schlosser; nary a stone of the oft-harried War of 1812 fortress remains, the chimney having been moved some time ago. The trail winds on, eventually up a small bluff and through the already yellow young cottonwoods, and then past the slip of the tugboat Daniel Joncaire, named for the first man to set up a mill along the mighty Niagara.

Image courtesy anikarenina on Flickr

The most rewarding section of the trail now awaits. The joy of the Niagara Riverway is the building momentum, the sense of expectation as you draw closer to the inevitable plunge. At the start, the Niagara is wide and slow, with humanless Navy Island and the far mainland Canadian shore friendly and harmless in the distance. But there is a potential undercurrent, a suspected sleeping giant beneath the waters, that begins to show itself as the river narrows and the control dam comes into view. The water is now moving much faster, and the swirling currents and eddies reveal that the river’s pace has quickened. By the time you reach the back end of Goat Island the first white water appears. A ridge of rapids initially, and then larger Tolkien-esque charging white horses. Large dead tree trunks, winter’s jetsam, hang up against rocks and ledges, temporarily delaying their decent. Weave through a crowd (present at some level no matter the weather), and you have arrived at the lip of the falls and the oblivion of the suddenly wide gorge rent in the earth. I like to imagine the birthplace of each drop water in that roaring torrent; a bit of Minnesotan snow here, a speck of Michigan moose drool there, and you have chosen to accompany it, by bike, for the last stage of its journey.

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Tone Deaf . . . and Policy Deaf

9 Sep

And Everything-Else Deaf too. We learned last week that the same clown show that brought you comically inappropriate Facebook Spam,  WNY economic development in Jamaica, “I forgot how I voted,” and “I sponsored that? My bad” is now officially totally and completely out of touch with a significant portion of his constituents. But that’s okay – they’re not the constituents he cares about anyway.

Antoine Thompson, unhappily my representative in the State Senate, has secured a $400,000 grant for the New York City billionaire most responsible for downtown Niagara Falls being a barren wasteland. What is the $400K for? Demolition.

There are a host of reasons this news is infuriating. I am not against grants for private businesses to assist in development of difficult areas. I am against giving grants to developers that haven’t built even a pop stand on 140 acres of downtown, much less the $110 million project promised 13 years ago. The developer in question having the scratch to do just about any project he wants without state aid is icing on the Frustration Cake.

That downtown Niagara Falls, next to a Wonder of the World and recipient of 10 million visitors a year, is such a development difficulty is sad and the result of decades of local government mismanagement. Howard Milstein, the recipient of this grant, is not responsible for that. He is responsible for sitting on a sweetheart deal from the City of Niagara Falls, and doing next to nothing with his holdings. The City of Niagara Falls does need and deserve state demolition aid. Milstein’s “projects” do not.

But for me, for once the politics are a bigger problem than the policy. The worst part, by far, is that Thompson proves how out of touch he is with the people he represents, by not only securing the grant, but bragging about it (in a flier paid for by tax payers) afterward, like everyone would think it’s a good idea. It is obvious that the Niagara Falls City Council knew nothing about the grant – if Thompson had called any of them, I’m sure someone would have mentioned that $400,000 to persona non grata Milstein would be terrible politically with the general public. Thompson receiving campaign contributions from Milstein is even worse.

Thompson makes terrible decisions, but even I am amazed he would take the trouble of bragging about such a tone deaf decision. Why publicize it in Niagara Falls at all? Take the contribution, give the grant, and be done with it. Thompson not only does not need a geographic majority of his district, he is oblivious to it.

Senate District 60 consists of a large section of the City of Buffalo. Oh yeah, and I guess Niagara Falls, Grand Island, and the City of Tonawanda. Which Tonawanda? Don’t ask Thompson – I’m not sure he could find Grand Island on the map either. A Senate district in New York averages a little over 300,000 people. The combined populations of the City of Niagara Falls (50,000), Grand Island (19,000) and the City of Tonawanda (14,000) are less than a third of his constituency. Which means Thompson can and does win elections in the City of Buffalo alone, and the rest of us are left to fight over policy deaf scraps. I am no big Sam Hoyt fan, but I give him credit for this – he knows Grand Island exists and spends time here, though lately it has just been about road signs and cell phone towers.

That politicians represent the views of some of their constituents more than others is not news. But why does Thompson have to be so bad and blatant about it? Next time the Senate gerrymanders its districts, can George Maziarz please drop that little bit of Rochester and pick up Niagara Falls and Grand Island instead? I don’t agree with Maziarz on everything, by far, but at least I would have a chance of being represented on the floor of the (useless) Senate.

If I was really as pro-suburb and anti-city as some commenters think I am, I’d be cheering for Thompson to take his anointed place as Mayor of Buffalo as quickly as possible, so Grand Island and Niagara Falls could finally be free of him. But I wouldn’t wish Thompson on anyone.

The Jokes Write Themselves

18 Apr

Some people should stick to collecting quarters.

But seriously, threats like these directed at Rus Thompson are astonishing, coming from a guy bitching that he might lose his $21/hr job collecting quarters through a system that should either be (1) abolished; or (2) completely automated, given the fact that it’s 2009 and we’re using medieval technology.

Someone call the whaaaaambulance. Good thing he’s up on charges.

I’m Mad As Hell, And I’m Not Gonna Take It Anymore

24 Nov

The immortal words of Peter Finch from the movie “Network” served as a rallying cry during today’s march across the Grand Island Bridge to protest the presence of the tolls on both ends of the island.

While the tolls cannot be removed by legal means as the Ogden and Breckenridge tolls were, the public outcry is reaching a fever pitch with near 8,000 petition signatures and the support of the Western New York State Assembly and Senate delegations.

It was a bitterly cold day, but dozens of people showed up to march with Rus Thompson of NoGItolls.com in protest of what they feel is a system of double taxation on commuters in Niagara Falls, Grand Island, and Buffalo. Carl Paladino of Ellicott Development, who was responsible for the lawsuit which abolished the tolls in Downtown Buffalo, recently sent a letter to Governor Spitzer about the Grand Island Tolls issue:

The Grand Island Bridges and the Tappan Zee Bridge tolls are the only specific bridge tolls on the New’ York State Thruway System. The roads on both sides of the Grand island Bridges are toll free.

The Thruway Authority has hundreds of other bridges in its system, all of which are maintained out of general revenue.

Someone decided that the Grand Island Bridges should have specific toll charges ostensibly because of extraordinary upkeep costs that they thought WNY residents should pay.

The Thruway Authority receives from the Federal Highway Fund a per lane mile allocation of Federal Highway monies for maintaining non-toll interstate highways and bridges. For the upkeep and maintenance of those roads it appears that the DOT act on behalf of the Thruway Authority in applying for those funds annually from the Federal Government, receives the money, and the money is then used for the upkeep of New York State DOT roads and in some cases some monies are forwarded to the Thruway Authority. It all makes sense to someone.

There are no toll roads in Albany, except for the main line thruway, nor are there any toll bridges or interstate roads crossing the Hudson in Albany. Likewise in Utica, Schenectady, Syracuse, and Rochester, DOT bridges are non-tolled. The Skyway Bridge in Buffalo is non-tolled. Why does the State punish residents of Grand island and Niagara County than above the operating cost across its entire system. Why were the tolls on the Grand Island Bridges raised 50% instead of the 20% uniformly raised across the Thruway System?

It all kind of stinks.

Very truly yours,
Ellicott Development Company

Carl P. Paladino
Chief Executive Officer

It does stink, and someone should hold the state accountable.