Tag Archives: op-ed

Ruling restores access to accident report data

A Wisconsin court of appeals ruling put to rest some of the questions over what information must be withheld under the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act. Its recent decision ends years of confusion in a way that squares with the state’s traditions of openness — and with common sense.

The DPPA was enacted more than two decades ago to restrict the release of personal information from DMV records. It was never meant to prevent police from releasing basic information in accident reports and other law-enforcement records.

But that was how the law was interpreted in much of Wisconsin. In recent years, following a federal court ruling in an Illinois case, concerns over liability have led some law enforcement agencies to heavily redact (blackout) reports before releasing them—limiting their news value and hampering public oversight of police.

In its May 10 decision, Wisconsin’s 3rd District Court of Appeals held that accident reports need not be redacted to comply with the DPPA, because state law expressly mandates their disclosure. Personal information obtained from other sources and merely verified with DMV records may also be released.

I was one of the attorneys, along with Bob Dreps, who represented a newspaper that filed the lawsuit that led to this ruling. The case was brought by the New Richmond News against the city of New Richmond.

Congress passed the DPPA in 1994 after a television actress was murdered by a stalker who obtained her home address from a local DMV. The law’s intent is clear: DMVs, with their vast repositories of personal information, cannot disclose that data except for one of 14 “permissible uses.” The same restrictions apply to other agencies that use DMV data.

But then, in 2012, the village of Palatine, Illinois, was threatened with liability for printing vehicle owners’ personal information — obtained from DMV records — on parking tickets placed on car windshields. The Palatine case caused some police departments in Wisconsin to start redacting records, prompting the New Richmond News to file suit.

In the end, reason won out in Palatine. The courts ultimately ruled that disclosing personal information on parking tickets was allowed because the police department used the information in carrying out its functions — one of the 14 “permissible uses.”

Reason should also win out in Wisconsin, although this may not happen right away. Whereas the court of appeals ruled accident reports must always be accessible, it also concluded that personal information obtained from DMV records and incorporated into incident reports can only be disclosed if doing so serves a function of the police department — a question the case was remanded to the circuit court to resolve.

The public has a legitimate right to law enforcement records, which are of little value if scrubbed of names and addresses. How can the public know if laws are enforced equally and appropriately if the identities of the people involved are obscured?

Ideally, the common-sense approach adopted by the court of appeals will serve as a blueprint for addressing the questions that remain—without further litigation.

This is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council — (www.wisfoic.org — a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Dustin Brown is an attorney at Godfrey & Kahn, S.C.

Your right to know: State should support student expression

Two years ago, the Fond du Lac School District unveiled new guidelines requiring administrative review and approval before the publication of any student media. The reaction by students was swift, democratic and effective.

Within days, they had publicized the change online, presented their case at a school board meeting, appeared on local media and gathered several thousand signatures on a petition calling for student publications to be returned to the students. Over the next several months, they highlighted the district’s use of these guidelines to block the publication of particular photos and information.

These efforts succeeded. The district agreed to convene a group of student journalists and educators to craft a new policy. By the next school year, the restrictive guidelines were gone.

The passion for the free flow of information and constitutional rights displayed by these students stands as a prime example of the power of a journalism education based on student responsibility and ownership. But efforts to stifle student speech remain.

Recently, a principal in Chicago censored a story about the school’s new starting time, at one point threatening to kill the publication entirely. Student journalists in Missouri were told they must submit a story about their superintendent’s resignation to the principal for editing. A student journalist in West Bend, Wisconsin, reports being barred from writing about certain topics.

And in many schools, the looming possibility of administrative overreach leads students to censor themselves, back down when challenged, or abandon student publications entirely.

This should not be happening. While schools must maintain an effective learning atmosphere, they do not have the right to suppress information they simply do not like. Court cases have made clear that students maintain their First Amendment rights of free speech at school.

Unfortunately, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier) established that schools could review and possibly restrain speech if related to legitimate educational purposes. Many school districts have over-applied this highly subjective standard.

Once a principal is allowed to pre-approve student journalism, it is inevitable that he or she will find things to change to make the expression more “positive” or more aligned with what the principal wants to say. This does not teach journalism or citizenship. It teaches that authority figures — government officials, in the case of public schools — decide what ideas can be discussed.

Since Hazelwood, eight states have passed laws clearly establishing that student publications belong to students, who are themselves responsible for deciding what to publish. North Dakota passed one such law unanimously last year, and more than 20 other states are looking to join them.

These bills, termed New Voices laws, do nothing to limit a school’s ability to prohibit illegal or harmful speech. But they do let students perfect the power of their own voices and explore the benefits of the free flow of information in a democracy.

Students in Wisconsin deserve a New Voices law of their own. The effort to do so here, known as Supporting New Voices of Wisconsin, has been getting media attention and editorial support.

In the next legislative session, we hope state lawmakers will help ensure that the rights of student journalists are clear and that schools are using student publications for student learning, rather than to promote the agenda of government officials.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Matthew Smith, a teacher at Fond du Lac High School, is a coordinator for New Voices of Wisconsin.

Award season is not over…

This year’s Oscar Award hubbub is over but it’s never too late to bestow honors on the deserving and undeserving in all facets of American life.

Leonardo DeCaprio was touted for the bold environmental statement he delivered during his Oscar acceptance speech. The respected actor deserves the “Clueless He-Man” Award for gushing repeatedly about his film The Revenant that “This is the kind of movie we should be making!” Sure Leo, Hollywood does not make nearly enough male revenge epics.

For its decision to pursue a $150 million tax-avoiding corporate inversion with Tyco International, Johnson Controls wins this year’s “Corporate Parasite” Award.

Among the “talking points” issued to defend the merger, Johnson Controls said that it and Tyco have “successful and robust” contracts with the U.S. government. In other words, they’re bullish about reeling in the government largesse as long as they don’t have to pay their share. That’s supposed to make it OK?

The “Take That, Scott Walker” Award goes to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for being elevated to the status of a research university by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. UW-Milwaukee now joins the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the ranks of the 115 best research institutions in the country.

Congratulations to the researchers and professors at UWM whose dedicated work in the arts and sciences advances our civilization. And let’s give a big raspberry to Walker and other Republican dullards for attacking tenure and cutting UW System budgets.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. gets the “Raging Impotency” Award for the hateful comments he spews, usually while pandering to right-wing audiences on Fox News. Among the contributions of this “peace” officer: calling Black Lives Matter activists “sub-human creeps” and denying police brutality exists.

Clarke reminds me of self-hating homosexuals who preach hell fire and damnation for gay people. His towering ego is in conflict with his inadequacy. In the scheme of things, Milwaukee County sheriff is not a very powerful position. The big cowboy hats don’t fool anyone.

A special Merit Badge goes to Chris Rock, host of the Oscar telecast, for promoting the Girl Scouts and their cookies. A companion “Shut the Front Door” Award goes to the archbishop of St. Louis who, days before the Oscars, declared that the Girl Scouts were exhibiting “troubling behavior … incompatible with our Catholic values.”

The “troubling behavior” apparently includes: having fun, empowering girls, and being open-minded and inclusive of different people. Support the Girl Scouts: Make the patriarchy quake.

The “Goodbye, Already” Award goes to late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who left a legacy of division through his mean-spirited decisions and dissents.

Scalia openly demeaned African Americans, gay people and immigrants and frequently denigrated the thinking of his fellow justices. He refused to compromise or reach consensus with them. He is not someone to emulate or admire and he hardly ranks with the giants of American jurisprudence. Goodbye, already.

The “Soldiering On” Award goes to the staff and volunteers of Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin and nationwide. GOP funding cuts, smear tactics and daily threats of violence do not keep these brave women and men from providing the professional, non-judgmental reproductive health care that millions of Americans need. Thank them by making a tax-deductible contribution to Planned Parenthood today.

Concerns linger over ‘transitory’ records in Wisconsin

The last six months have been a roller coaster for Wisconsin’s open records law. After the Legislature’s failed attack on the law over the Independence Day holiday, August brought a new threat.

A little-known state board expanded the definition of “transitory records,” which can be immediately destroyed. Once this action was revealed, there was an impressive outcry from the public and that change was dialed back last month. But there is still cause for concern.

The state Public Records Board sets retention schedules for state and local government records. Retention is important—if records aren’t retained, they can’t be requested and obtained by the public. State law makes retention the rule, and records can be disposed of only if the Public Records Board grants permission. The board’s mandate is to “safeguard the legal, financial and historical interests of the state in public records.”         

But in 2010, the board made the questionable decision to allow immediate deletion of some correspondence. Such “transitory records” were deemed of such temporary value as to not require any retention. State agency employees could simply delete these records after they were created, without any further oversight.

On Aug. 24, 2015, the board held a meeting and expanded the transitory records category. Now it included not just correspondence, but other documents such as “interim files” and “recordings used for training purposes.”

The board’s meeting notice and minutes contained no indication of this change, later prompting the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council to file an Open Meetings complaint with the district attorney. The day after the new definition was passed, the Walker administration notified the Wisconsin State Journal that records it previously requested had already been destroyed as “transitory.”

News outlets then reported the Public Record Board’s actions, and the reaction was swift. Critics said the change undermined the records law and the public’s right to know, inviting abuse. They pointed out that records the board defined as “transitory” were actually of significant public interest.  There were also concerns that whole categories of electronic communications would be deleted as “transitory.” The Public Records Board was flooded with nearly 1,900 emails.

Fortunately, the board listened. At a meeting in January, it rescinded its August decision to expand the definition of “transitory records.”

But the danger has not passed. The old, 2010 definition of “transitory records” is still in place. Records custodians can still immediately delete some correspondence. Comments from board members in January suggested they are resistant to eliminating this category, despite state law suggesting that no records can be instantly deleted. Board president Matt Blessing said the issue would be revisited at a future meeting.  The board next convenes on March 7.

Another positive step is a bill being circulated by Democratic lawmakers that would create penalties for destroying public records. As Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca observed, “There’s no recourse if agencies destroy records.” The bill would shore up existing provisions in the law that deter premature destruction of public records.

Let’s hope one or both of these potential fixes advance. Otherwise, Wisconsin’s weak records retention requirements will continue to undermine the public’s right to know.

Christa Westerberg is an attorney at Bender Westerberg LLC in Madison, and co-vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.


Needed: Conscience and courage

As the fall chill takes hold, we can mope about the prospect of another long, dreary winter or make plans to shake up our lives and make good use of our time.

What’s true for our personal lives is equally true for our political climate.

Many liberals are discouraged by the endless stream of inanities from right-wing media, Congressional committees and Republican presidential candidates. Corporate shills vigorously deny global warming despite growing evidence of rising temperatures, deforestation, ocean acidification and species extinction.

Closer to home, Gov. Scott Walker and his GOP majorities in our Legislature continue to destroy multi-party, transparent government. Their methods are legion: gerrymandering legislative districts; prohibiting prosecutors from conducting John Doe investigations into corrupt practices; increasing the amount of allowable political campaign contributions while enabling donor anonymity; eliminating civil service rules that prevent cronyism; trying to trash our open records law; dismantling the nonpartisan board that oversees ethics and accountability; depressing voter participation through restrictive, confusing voter ID laws; restricting local ballot initiatives.

With Wisconsin in the grip of incipient fascism, it’s not the time for us to hibernate. There are many opportunities to get involved and help to turn our state back to a progressive path.

Contact the League of Women Voters (608-256-0827) or the Democratic Party in your region of the state to participate in voter education and registration drives. The GOP is counting on chaos and low voter turnout in next year’s elections. You can take an active role in seeing their plans crushed. At a minimum, make sure that you and everyone you know has the proper ID and knows when and where to vote.

I am far to the left of the Democratic Party, but I’m also a pragmatist. Democrats are the most viable alternative to the GOP right now. The GOP has a 63–36 majority in the state Assembly and a 19–14 majority in the Senate. It will be difficult to turn that around, but it’s not impossible. It wasn’t long ago that we had a Democratic governor and Democratic majority in the Senate.

I urge you to contact the Democratic Party and get active in campaigns, canvassing, issues research, social media and other forms of organizing. Participation of this kind has many benefits, including new skills, friendships and adventures. You can change your life while you change our state.

The Wisconsin Legislature is in session through Dec. 31. GOP leaders are promoting more legislation that will restrict public oversight and women’s reproductive freedom. 

Your voice matters. When issues concern you, call, write or email your representatives. Sign up for Twitter and email alerts from your favorite advocacy organizations. Planned Parenthood Advocates kept me informed daily during its federal funding crisis and allows me to send messages to my elected officials with just one keystroke. 

Spread the word and activate your family, friends and workmates. It is only through individual initiative that we will rescue democratic governance in our state.

“In a democracy,” wrote Marilynne Robinson, “abdications of conscience are never trivial. A successful autocracy rests on the universal failure of individual courage.”

In Wisconsin, it’s time we put conscience and courage into high gear.

For GOP, all crises, all the time

“The sky is falling.”

That’s the tone of disaster that dominated the second GOP presidential candidates’ debate on CNN. In a spate of fear mongering that would have made Josef Goebbels blush, each candidate expressed alarm about the imminent dangers threatening the United States.

The candidates railed about the hordes of Mexicans invading from the south and the “lunatic” leader of North Korea threatening nuclear war. They were apoplectic about the U.S. Supreme Court trampling Christians and their religious freedom by legalizing same-sex marriage, as well as the baby haters at Planned Parenthood supposedly selling body parts for profit. 

Reality check: Abortion and teen pregnancy rates in the United States are at their lowest levels in 40 years. That is largely due to Planned Parenthood, whose primary services of family planning — sex education and birth control — are available to millions without judgment and regardless of ability to pay. 

Planned Parenthood has been federally funded for decades because it provides an important public service. The federal funds it receives cannot be used for abortions. Fetal tissue cannot be sold. De-funding Planned Parenthood now will result in tremendous costs, both financial and human, in the future.

Seeing danger everywhere, the GOP candidates demanded an increased Pentagon budget, which is currently bloated at $600 billion. At a recent congressional hearing, the Pentagon revealed it spent a half billion dollars training Syrian fighters to oppose ISIS, a program that resulted in only five effective fighters. If you google “F-35 fighter jet problems,” you’ll see how our government is wasting $1 trillion on that boondoggle. The answer to our defense is not spending more money but spending money more effectively. 

The GOPers insisted that we tear up our nuclear agreement with Iran and refuse to hold any meetings with Vladimir Putin. But Putin has leverage with the Syrian president that could help to resolve the Middle East conflict and even Ronald Reagan knew it made sense to talk with opponents like Brezhnev and Gorbachev. 

The candidates attacked the Affordable Care Act, which has enabled 17 million citizens to obtain health insurance, and they made reckless, unsupportable comments about childhood vaccines causing autism. Can you imagine them overseeing public health?

They said taxes and government regulations (except those on women’s uteruses) are oppressing the American people. Global warming is a liberal plot. And emissions standards and other environmental protections cannot be allowed to interfere with American business. 

That last argument was voiced as California was suffering from record wildfires, Texas from continuing drought and Asia from massive floods. The one existential crisis we are actually facing was denied by all the GOP candidates!

I get it. When you’re in opposition, you have to make things look bleak. The world of Barack Obama needs to be a dangerous, scary place from which Republicans promise to rescue us. The GOP, with the 24/7 help of right-wing media, is doing a good job of making the United States seem like a failed, chaotic state with the government — not the racists or the super-rich, or even ISIS — as the most menacing villains.

The Republicans’ extremism and “my way or the highway” divisiveness faces a big test with the budget face-off over Planned Parenthood. It’s not just a war between Congress and Obama, it’s a war for women’s autonomy and for the future.

Will we be governed by reason and compromise or by fear, lies and ultimatums?

Please, contact your representative and senator to make your voice heard.

A step toward ending the pot war

Lives wasted. Billions spent. The decriminalization of marijuana isn’t merely right-minded social policy. It’s the fiscally conservative thing to do.

Legislation to make possession of up to 15 grams on par with a traffic ticket breezed through the Illinois Senate Criminal Law Committee earlier this month, on its way to the floor. Urban Democrats propelled it through the House this past week. But Republicans, including Gov. Bruce Rauner, and rural Democrats, are doing all they can to stall the march toward reasonable permissiveness. 

It’s no secret that the state budget is a train wreck, caused by decades of gimmicks and mismanagement. Proponents of decriminalization say even the paired-down version of HB218 passed in the House would save Illinois $30 million. It would free more than 100 prisoners, now costing taxpayers more than $38,000 apiece. And, perhaps most important, it would expunge the records of the thousands of residents who have been victims of outdated, often racist drug policy.

These facts alone leave us perplexed by the opposition from the right flank and conservative Democrats in the House. Reps. Brandon Phelps, John Bradley and Jerry Costello, all Southern Illinois Democrats, dissented. They joined Republican Terri Bryant in opposition.

It’s a fact that marijuana bans were first created to hammer minorities. It’s a fact that the war on non-violent drug offenses disproportionately clogs the state’s court system with inner-city black men, who are nearly eight times more likely to get busted for misdemeanor possessing pot, according to a recent Rockefeller University study. And, with the intent-to-deal provision, it’s a fact that too many felons have been created for nothing more than a bag of weed.

Laws should protect the people. Never should they be drafted to feed the prison economy beast on which too many communities have come to depend.

Too many are defending Illinois’s failed drug policy, brashly supporting the broken status quo. Decriminalization is the next step toward full-on legalization, they say. There shouldn’t be any expansion to the recently approved medical marijuana law, they contend. And Illinois’s Republican governor is already refusing to extend the medicinal program pending review, while red tape and bureaucracy are hamstringing the test run.

Opponents are correct on one count. Decriminalization is a step toward a fully legalized, well-regulated marijuana system in the state. Their mistake comes by clinging to the hype of the aging anti-pot propaganda machine. A truly small government doesn’t needlessly impinge on people’s lives, which is exactly what fear-based pot laws now do.

Opponents are trying to stem a tide that has already consumed them. Rauner should immediately sign HB218 if it clears the Senate.

Decriminalization is indeed a step toward legalization. And, in light of the billions spent and millions of lives ruined by the war on pot, it’s a path worth following.

Editor’s note: This piece was published on May 8 in The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan and made available through an AP exchange.



Decoding the right-wing lexicon

Choo-Choo: Dismissive term for high-speed and light rail used by right wingers who are so backward in their thinking they associate these 21st century wonders — fueling commerce and transit systems from Paris to Beijing — with the 19th century locomotive chugging into Petticoat Junction.

Class Warfare!: Howl of hypocrisy by the powerful and their paid media hounds when anyone dares to ask why there is such shocking inequality, poverty and dead-end despair in a land that promises opportunity for all but makes only a tiny fraction of politically connected people insanely rich.

Collateral Damage: Memo from the “Defense” Department: “Ooops, sorry we dropped those bombs on your wedding … your school … your hospital,” etc.

Creation Science: Biblical fantasy.

Death Tax: Taxes levied on the estates of filthy rich dead people to prevent their lazy-ass descendants from becoming Masters of the Universe in perpetuity because of an accident of birth. See: Plutocracy. 

Entitlement Reform: Stealing the Social Security and Medicare insurance that workers have been paying into for their entire lives and handing it to Wall Street speculators.

Fetal Personhood: Anti-abortion legislation based on an unproduced Ed Wood horror movie. In the script, creepy fetal “persons” suck the life out of unwilling female hosts, mate with other fetal persons, buy angora sweaters and move to suburbia.

Free Speech Zones: Gated corrals into which militarized police herd and detain protesters so no one will hear or see their message. Free speech zones are utilized most often at political conventions and international economic summits.

Free Trade Agreement: Corporate license to maximize profits by exploiting foreign workers, destroying their native crops and industries and despoiling their environments without regulation. See: Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

Plutocracy: A society controlled by a small number of its wealthiest citizens, tolerated by masses who are convinced they will win the lottery and are anesthetized by talking screens. See: Telescreen.

Regime Change: Overthrowing a government because we can. See: Iraq, Libya, Guatemala, Iran, Chile, Congo, Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada, etc.

School Vouchers: Public subsidies of private, mostly religious education with no oversight of school facilities, teacher qualifications or student achievement. The Afghanis call them madrasas. Madrasas produced the Taliban.

Security Contractors: Mercenary armies of hired killers.

States’ Rights: The battle cry of modern-day Confederates who won’t grow up, who want to deny rights to any group they fear or despise, and who are building up scads of bile and weaponry to launch the Second War of Secession.

Telescreens: First predicted by mid-20th century authors George Orwell and Ray Bradbury, these ever-present interactive video monitors — from pocket size to IMAX dimension — have become the most effective means of social control in societies worldwide. 

Three Hours Hate: Real-life version of George Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate” from 1984, hosted by Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, et al., on a radio station near you every afternoon. Orwell sensed our capacity to hate on cue but underestimated how long some people are willing to revel in their hatred. 

Tort Reform: In a slam-dunk work-around for those pesky liability lawsuits, corporations can now write off punitive damages as business expenses. Liability? What liability?

Trans-Pacific Partnership: International coup, dictated in secret by corporate interests, that places multi-national firms above the influence and regulation of any sovereign nation and its elected representatives. TPP is soon to be considered by the U.S. Senate.

Wise Use: Euphemism employed by western state property and mineral rights militants to rationalize their theft and exploitation of Indian and public lands.

Revisiting ‘Pride and Prejudice’

Pride is bustin’ out all over this June with LGBT Pride celebrations stretching from Milwaukee to cities around the world.

The marches and festivals mark the 45th anniversary of the June 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York, when dragsters and other “fringe” elements of the queer community fought back against police oppression. The two days of near riots that followed the routine bust of a gay bar launched the beginning of the gay liberation movement, which has evolved into the LGBT movement today.

Enhancing this year’s celebration is the amazing progress of marriage equality across the U.S. Citing last year’s Supreme Court ruling, federal judges are finding anti-marriage statutes unconstitutional infringements of due process and equal protection. 

As I write, 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. Judges in 11 more states have issued rulings supportive of marriage equality, although those decisions must go through the appellate process. 

A federal judge will rule soon on Wisconsin’s anti-gay marriage ban. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is so worried about the outcome that he’s asked the judge to issue an immediate stay if the ban is overturned. What an ogre! Who doesn’t love all the media coverage of loving couples jamming courthouses, crying tears of joy? Who doesn’t love happy endings?

There’s almost a sense of triumph among some gay people, as if the battles are all won and we can tweak our opponents with a collective “Nanner-nanner!” Is the love that dared not speak its name becoming the love that won’t shut-up? What is the right tone for a Pride celebration in these days of seeming victory?

I turned for advice to the woman who wrote the book on pride and prejudice — literally. Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice is now 200 years old but it remains delightfully readable and oh-so-wise. 

Early on, Austen has Mary, one of the five Bennet daughters, speculate: “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

The concept of “gay pride” grew from the black power and black pride slogans that energized the African-American civil rights movement. The pride invoked was not the overweening pride of the “seven deadly sins” variety or the tragic pride that brought down the kings of classic literature. 

Like black pride, gay pride was an expression of identity and community meant to empower a people oppressed by church, state and custom. There are still many gay people, especially kids, who are isolated and treated abominably. Promoting pride saves lives.

Austen has more to say. When Elizabeth, Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy banter about pride, Darcy declares: “Where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.” Here, I read “superiority of mind” not as arrogance but as nobility and generosity of spirit. There is a lesson in this for the queer community.

Elizabeth says about Darcy: “I could easily forgive his pride if he had not mortified mine.” LGBT people should behave in such a way that we do not mortify others, especially those who oppose us. The challenge for us, according to the old liberal icon Hubert Humphrey, “is not to march alone but to march in such a way that others will wish to join us.

Moments of Christmas delirium

Despite my hard-earned rep as an atheistic radical commie lesbian, I turn into a hopeless ball of schmaltz when the holiday season begins. Every year, I succumb to the sentimentality of Christmas movies. 

I used to start crying just 10 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life, when young George gets his ears boxed by the druggist, Mr. Gower. Last year, it only took 3 minutes, when George’s little brother Harry crashes through the ice.

Many people have tired of it because of its overexposure, but It’s a Wonderful Life is a perfectly written and executed film. Jimmy Stewart is outstanding but every performer, including bit players, is stellar. The scenes crackle with intensity and lyricism: George’s heart-to-heart talk with his dad; his confrontations with old Potter; his rousing plea to Bedford Falls to stick together against the evil banker. 

Lately, my favorite scene is the “Buffalo Gals” stroll between George and Mary after their plunge in the pool. The flirtatious banter between Stewart and Donna Reed, punctuated by the neighbor yelling, “Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?” is priceless.

The dialogue in White Christmas is stilted and there’s that cringe-inducing minstrel number. But when the veterans sing “We’ll Follow the Old Man” and the cast joins in “White Christmas,” I’m a goner. Besides that, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen are cute as buttons, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” rates among the best Hollywood dance numbers, and the “Sisters” drag routine by Danny and Bing Crosby (which Danny seems to be enjoying a little too much) is hilarious.

Other movies I enjoy at Christmas are less obvious. While You Were Sleeping, the wonderful romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock, takes place from Christmas to New Year’s in Chicago. There’s a lot of Midwestern holiday warmth, charming performances and many funny lines. My fave is Granny announcing out loud at Christmas Mass: “I liked Mass better in Latin. It’s nicer when you don’t know what they’re saying.”

Another heartwarmer is Little Women with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon. There are a number of New England winter scenes that include caroling and gathering around the hearth. The interior scenes capture the warmth and love that pervade the March home. A great story, thoughtful performances and a classy score by Thomas Newman make it a winner. But prepare yourself: Beth still dies. Cue the crying jag.

Another unexpected holiday treat is Millions, a small gem by Danny Boyle, the director of Slumdog Millionaire. In Millions, 7-year-old Damian, who has just lost his mum and who talks with saints, comes upon a satchel containing millions of British pound notes. The sweet boy decides to give it all to the poor, leading to comical misadventures and a scary showdown with the criminals who want their loot back.

Most of the action takes place over Christmas and New Year’s. In one magical scene, Damian flees from the bad guys by following a bright star. He’s accompanied by the big papier-mâché donkey from his school’s Christmas play. In the end, Damian meets his dead mum for a final chat and hug before he and she can let each other go.

The best Christmas stories, like Dickens’ template A Christmas Carol, are dark as well as light. There’s nothing like a good cry, but here’s hoping that you find your way to the light this holiday season.