Volume 11 No 4
Communications Policy Agenda
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has developed a framework for a Civil Rights E-Agenda to guide the coalition's work in the 107th Congress. In doing so, its goal is to bring core civil rights values to Communications and Internet Policy issues that will shape opportunity and equality in this new century. Below is a summary of some of the key issues.
Equality of Opportunity in Education
Equality of educational opportunity has stood at the core of the LCCR agenda since its inception. From the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision to the ongoing defense of affirmative action in higher education, the Leadership Conference has worked to bring equity to minority and low-income schools and to shape federal education policy. Among other things, the Leadership Conference has played a central role in working to strengthen and broaden the impact of Title I (to improve the educational achievement levels of low-income students), to gain strong enforcement of Title IX to bring equal opportunity to girls and college women, and to ensure bilingual education for language minorities as well as individualized educational plans for students with disabilities. Technology skills are already critical for stable, high-paying jobs. As the information economy continues to develop, the opportunity to develop skills in advanced technologies will become a more central part of what is needed in order for equal educational opportunity to be meaningful.
For example, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will be a top priority during the 107th Congress. In addition to the issues that the Leadership Conference has historically addressed, it will broaden its agenda to include measures to bring the power of new technologies to the classroom in underserved communities.
Protect Voting Rights and Increase Civic Engagement
The defense and expansion of voting rights is perhaps the most fundamental task of the civil and human rights community. From the post Civil War Amendments, to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act and its subsequent reauthorizing amendments, to redistricting efforts and the "Motor Voter" law, equal access to and effective exercise of the franchise has been the foundation on which all other efforts to achieve equality and social justice stood. The central importance of the Voting Rights Act and civic participation more generally is reflected in the recent Leadership Conference Digital Opportunity Partnership survey finding that a majority (54%) of survey respondents plan to increase involvement in policies aimed at increasing civic engagement and participation in the political process in the online environment.
The next decade will witness extraordinary changes in the way U.S. citizens vote as well as how they obtain information on candidates and issues. Online voter registration is already a reality in some jurisdictions and experiments in online voting are proliferating. Yet while general concerns have been expressed on the impact of online voting on those on the wrong side of the digital divide, there has been scant attention paid to how historic measures such as the Voting Rights Act should apply or how online voting may impact particular communities such as persons with disabilities. At the same time, the Internet offers an unprecedented opportunity for civil rights voices to be heard and to engage new audiences in the issues. The Leadership Conference hopes to assume a leadership position on these vital issues, including the development of a comprehensive and scholarly examination on civil rights issues raised by online registration and voting.
The civil rights community has long been involved in promoting media diversity as an important factor in ensuring that many different voices can be heard. Our work has ranged from participation in the Kerner Commission and the work with broadcasters that followed in its wake, to the efforts of many national organizations to hold studios accountable for stereotyping people of color and gays (for example), to efforts to increase minority ownership within the broadcast industry, and to increase diversity both in front of and behind the camera among writers, producers, actors and technicians in the industry. The civil rights community needs to be as vigilant in examining any proposed changes to the Telecommunications Act for impact on media diversity and to urge the FCC to continue its efforts in this area.
Equal and Nondiscriminatory Access to Essential Services
Fair and nondiscriminatory access to housing, banking, insurance, and public accommodations has also been at the heart of the civil rights mission. Historic efforts by the civil rights community have sought to prevent "red-lining" of goods and services based on race, ethnicity, accessibility, or income level. Those principles ought to be applied with equal force to the new communications and information technologies that will shape much of educational and commercial opportunity in the 21st Century.
Equal Employment Opportunity and Job Training
Fighting for equal employment opportunity has also been a central mission of the civil rights community. Since its inception, the Leadership Conference has played a central role in gaining federal protections against employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin through Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and in extending such protection to persons with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to older workers under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The Leadership Conference also played a key role in the attempt to extend such protections to the gay and lesbian community in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Affirmative Action has also been a high priority as lawmakers and judges continue their assault on such programs. Continued support in all of these areas will be important within the technology sector, however the Leadership Conference may be uniquely well situated to draw attention to the special needs of persons with disabilities in this area. Computer and communications technology can be deployed in ways that enhance accessibility, or that enhance barriers. The Leadership Conference is committed to working to ensure that employment and job training programs both include access to persons with disabilities, and teach people how to continue inclusive use of technology resources.
The Internet and other new technologies have already begun to change many aspects of our lives. That impact will increase exponentially in the next decade, implicating core civil rights values. The Leadership Conference's Digital Opportunity Partnership survey results confirmed that member organizations recognize the nexus between the civil rights mission and the emerging communications and Internet policy issues. At the same time, the survey indicated a clear need for leadership if civil rights groups are to make the case for equality and social justice in the digital age.
The Leadership Conference can play that leadership role for the civil rights community and provide the substantive knowledge and coalition resources needed to ensure a place at the policymaking table. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights can play a critical role in educating the next Congress and the new Administration on the importance of bringing civil rights values to digital policymaking.