Why did feds claim Kindle violates civil rights? 

Did you know the Justice Department threatened several universities with legal action because they took part in an experimental program to allow students to use the Amazon Kindle for textbooks?

Last year, the schools -- among them Princeton, Arizona State and Case Western Reserve -- wanted to know if e-book readers would be more convenient and less costly than traditional textbooks. The environmentally conscious educators also wanted to reduce the huge amount of paper students use to print files from their laptops.

It seemed like a promising idea until the universities got a letter from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, now under an aggressive new chief, Thomas Perez, telling them they were under investigation for possible violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

From its introduction in 2007, the Kindle has drawn criticism from the National Federation of the Blind and other activist groups. While the Kindle's text-to-speech feature could read a book aloud, its menu functions required sight to operate. "If you could get a sighted person to fire up the device and start reading the book to you, that's fine," says Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the federation. "But other than that, there was really no way to use it."

In May 2009, Amazon announced the pilot program, under which it would provide Kindle DX readers to a few universities. It wasn't a huge deal; Princeton's plan, for example, involved three courses and a total of 51 students, and only in the fall semester of that year. University spokeswoman Emily Aronson says the program was voluntary and students could opt out of using the Kindle. "There were no students with a visual impairment who had registered for the three classes," says Aronson.

Nevertheless, in June 2009, the federation filed a complaint with the Justice Department, accusing the schools of violating the ADA. Perez and his team went to work.

"We acted swiftly to respond to complaints we received about the use of the Amazon Kindle," Perez recently told a House committee. "We must remain vigilant to ensure that as new devices are introduced, people with disabilities are not left behind."

The Civil Rights Division informed the schools they were under investigation. In subsequent talks, the Justice Department demanded the universities stop distributing the Kindle; if blind students couldn't use the device, then nobody could. The Federation made the same demand in a separate lawsuit against Arizona State.

It's an approach that bothers some civil rights experts. "As a blind person, I would never want to be associated with any movement that punished sighted students, particularly for nothing they had ever done," says Russell Redenbaugh, a California investor who lost his sight in a childhood accident and later served for 15 years on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "It's a gross injustice to disadvantage one group, and it's bad policy that breeds resentment, not compassion."

Some officials at the schools were puzzled. Given the speed of technological development and the reality of competition among technology companies -- Apple products were already fully text-to-speech capable -- wasn't this a problem the market would solve?

That's not Perez's way. To him, keeping the Kindle out of sighted students' hands underscored "the importance of full and equal educational opportunities for everyone."

In early 2010, after most of the courses were over, the Justice Department reached agreement with the schools, and the federation settled with Arizona State. The schools denied violating the ADA but agreed that until the Kindle was fully accessible, nobody would use it.

One obvious solution to the problem, of course, was to fix the Kindle. Early on, Amazon told federation officials it would apply text-to-speech technology to the Kindle's menu and function keys. And sure enough, last week the company announced a new generation of Kindles that are fully accessible to the blind. While the Justice Department was making demands, and Perez was making speeches, the market was working.

But as Amazon was unveiling the new Kindle last week, Perez was sending a letter to educators warning them they must use technology "in a manner that is permissible under federal law."

Now, Perez is at work on a far bigger project, one that could eventually declare the Internet a "public accommodation" under the ADA. That could result in a raft of new Justice Department regulations for disabled access to all sorts of Web sites.

Of course, most Web access problems are already being solved by the market, but that won't stop the Justice Department's zealous civil rights enforcer.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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