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Florida's ACLU: 50 years of fight

It has defended the rights of Miami rapper Luther Campbell, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and Cuban band Los Van Van — along with gays, lesbians, welfare recipients, homeless people, sex offenders, death row inmates, ex-felons, voters, professors and doctors.

Not to mention the countless constitutional fights it has picked with cities, legislatures and governors, most notably Rick Scott.

In Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union boasts a long list of clients and causes over the past half-century — both popular and unpopular, sparking polarizing controversies every step of the way.

For Howard Simon, the longtime executive director of the state ACLU, the organization's legal journey in Florida has been quixotic, to say the least. "While we've had some losses and some victories, we've changed the culture of Florida," Simon said.

Although the Florida ACLU is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the ACLU actually dates back to 1955 in Miami. A decade later, the local chapter joined others in St. Petersburg and Orlando to establish the statewide organization. It was chartered by the national ACLU, headquartered in New York.

The civil rights movement had been well under way in the South, leading to major legislation in Congress. But discrimination still festered throughout the region, including in Florida, which denied blacks equal access to schools, housing and voting places.

Richard Yale Feder, a New Jersey transplant who would become a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge, was among the first local ACLU members. He said the group's initial mission was to challenge discrimination from Miami to Tallahassee, recognizing that civil rights and civil liberties were inseparable.

"The state was not open to treating everyone equally," said Feder, now retired. "We just wanted to make life fairer for everyone."

Amy Turkel, the state ACLU's director of philanthropy, recalled that her parents, Leonard and Annsheila Turkel, participated in the first civil rights sit-ins in Miami and joined the organization. "The ACLU became a place where people valued those issues," she said.

Bruce Rogow, a prominent constitutional law expert, first did legal work for the ACLU in Mississippi before joining its ranks in Miami during the mid 1960s. He said the organization, though traditionally supported by left-leaning liberals, has drawn support from across the political spectrum because its only goal is to protect the Constitution — which acts as a "restraint" on government powers.

"Their focus is not on people's political views — it's on their constitutional rights," Rogow said. "That's what makes them so persuasive. They are not a doctrinaire group. Their doctrine is the Constitution. They provide a check and balance on government entities at all levels."

He said the public often misunderstands the ACLU's role in legal battles: One day the group can be advocating for the protest rights of Vietnam War veterans and the next day for those of pro-Nazi groups. Rogow, working on behalf of the ACLU, had those extreme experiences representing each side during the 1972 Democratic and Republican conventions in Miami Beach.

"That's why they take so much flak," said Rogow, a founding professor of law at Nova Southeastern University perhaps best known for defending Campbell, the 2 Live Crew rapper, in obscenity and free speech cases involving the ACLU in the early 1990s.

Several people familiar with the ACLU's history say the statewide organization struggled with its direction and finances during this period — before Simon arrived in 1997 from Detroit, where he had served as the executive director for 23 years. They credit him with revitalizing the ACLU in Florida, sharpening its focus on issues ranging from privacy to censorship.

Miami, home to the Cuban exile community, became a hotbed of litigation. Among the many ACLU victories in the federal courts: ending a ban on Cuban artists — including the band Los Van Van — from performing in local venues. That First Amendment ruling followed a previous court precedent allowing the display of Cuban artwork at a museum in Miami.

Another triumph: lifting a judge's gag order on exile leader Jose Basulto in Miami's Cuban spy case, so that he could commemorate the deaths of four colleagues shot down over the Florida Straits by Fidel Castro's air force in 1996.

But there was also a setback: The ACLU lost its bid to overturn the Miami-Dade School Board's removal of a children's travel book, Vamos a Cuba, from school libraries. The majority of board members found that it provided an "inaccurate" depiction of life in the communist country. A federal appeals court concluded they had a right to voice their objections to the content.

Among the ACLU's high-profile privacy cases was its support of Limbaugh, the conservative radio host based in Palm Beach, who was represented by Miami criminal defense attorney Roy Black. The county sheriff's deputies issued a warrant on his doctor's office and seized his medical records to see if he illegally obtained painkillers from several physicians. The ACLU argued the sheriff should have obtained a subpoena, which would have given Limbaugh an opportunity to object before any of his records were seized.

And then there were the ACLU's battles with a pair of conservative Republican governors, namely Jeb Bush and Rick Scott.

The ACLU challenged Bush's 2003 executive order to reinsert a feeding tube into Terri Schiavo, found to be in a "persistent vegetative state," against the wishes of the Clearwater woman and her husband, Michael Schiavo. The ACLU, along with a team of private lawyers, represented the husband. They succeeded in having the Florida Supreme Court declare Bush's action unconstitutional.

"They (the ACLU) felt strongly that what Jeb Bush was doing was wrong," Michael Schiavo, 52, said. "They recognized that laws were being broken."

Schiavo said he will be forever grateful to the ACLU and his attorneys because they let him stay by his wife's side throughout the wrenching legal and political ordeal. "They knew what I wanted to do, and I knew I had the best attorneys helping me," he said.

The political era of Scott, a tea party favorite, has unleashed a litany of legal conflicts with the ACLU.

Among them: the Republican-led Legislature's 2013 law, signed by Scott, that required welfare applicants to be tested for drugs. Deeming it an unreasonable search and privacy invasion, the federal courts barred the state from imposing the law. The following year, Scott issued an executive order requiring random drug testing of most state employees, which the courts also found unconstitutional.

Clearly, the most publicized triumphs for the ACLU have been its efforts to end Florida's longtime ban on adoptions by gays and lesbians and to secure the legal recognition of same-sex couples who were married in other states that allowed such unions. Among the nine couples was a Fort Myers widow who lost her spouse in March of last year, but Florida officials would not allow her name to be on the death certificate.

On Jan. 1 of this year, a federal judge ordered the state to recognize the marriage of Arlene Goldberg to her late wife, Carol Goldwasser, making them the first same-sex couple to have their marriage recognized by Florida officials.

"It made me feel like I really was married and it really did count," said Goldberg, 68, who had reached out to the ACLU after reading about its same-sex marriage lawsuit in a newspaper. The ACLU added her immediately to the original eight couples named in the suit. "It helped me get through the grieving period. It made me so strong."

Despite those landmark achievements, Simon said the ACLU still has many barriers to overcome, including its perennial effort to restore the voting rights of ex-felons and to reform the criminal justice and prison systems in Florida.

The group's most immediate court challenge is a new law forcing women seeking an abortion to wait at least 24 hours after visiting a clinic. Simon said the ACLU has obtained a temporary restraining order stopping the law from taking effect. The measure would delay abortions and require additional days off from work, more child care and unnecessary travel.

He said that to mount the case, ACLU lawyers are deploying a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to privacy that voters approved in 1980. The initial legislation was sponsored by the late state Sen. Jack Gordon, a founding member of the ACLU's Miami chapter.

"We have come full circle," Simon said. "We are using the constitutional amendment that one of our founders championed and that the voters approved to strike down this illegal restriction on women's rights imposed by the Legislature and Rick Scott."

© 2015 Miami Herald

Florida's ACLU: 50 years of fight 10/16/15 [Last modified: Friday, October 16, 2015 1:45pm]
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