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50 years ago, a UF student bucked Florida’s abortion laws and won

As editor of the student newspaper, Ron Sachs published a list of abortion clinics — a possible felony in a time before Roe v. Wade.
In this image from a University of Florida video, Ron Sachs discusses events that led him to challenge the state's abortion law in 1971 when he was editor of the Alligator student newspaper. Pictured at left is the list of abortion clinics and counseling centers that the Alligator published in what was said to be a violation of state law at the time.
In this image from a University of Florida video, Ron Sachs discusses events that led him to challenge the state's abortion law in 1971 when he was editor of the Alligator student newspaper. Pictured at left is the list of abortion clinics and counseling centers that the Alligator published in what was said to be a violation of state law at the time. [ University of Florida ]
Published Jun. 27|Updated Jun. 27

Jean Chance, 83, was driving in Alachua County on Friday when she heard on the radio that Roe v. Wade had been overturned.

“I thought I was going to have a wreck,” she said.

A little over 50 years ago, Chance, then a journalism professor at the University of Florida, was hosting a home full of students. They were strategizing about a First Amendment case that ended up playing a role in changing Florida’s restrictive abortion laws for the first time since 1868.

And in an important but less notable development, it prompted UF’s well-regarded student newspaper, the Florida Alligator, to break from university control and become independent.

In 1971, when Ron Sachs was the Alligator’s editor, the nation was wrestling with the Vietnam War, civil rights and a burgeoning women’s rights movement.

“College campuses across the country were almost like a social laboratory,” said Sachs, the founder and CEO of a prominent media consulting firm based in Tallahassee.

“It was a cauldron that had begun to boil hotter and hotter,” Chance said.

The newspaper planned to publish a story about women who had had legal and illegal abortions under a century-old state law that banned the procedure, including in cases of rape and incest. Sachs planned to publish a list of abortion clinics and counseling services to run with the story.

Then a law student advised him he could be committing a crime because a companion statute to the law made it illegal to “hint, print or advertise” where people could get abortions. The student journalists saw that as a violation of the First Amendment.

The newspaper took the issue to the Board of Publications, which oversaw the Alligator at the time and voted in favor of publishing the list. But Stephen C. O’Connell, the university’s then-president and a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, told Sachs not to print the list.

Seeking advice, Sachs approached Chance, a professor he respected, though he’d never taken one of her classes. He and others met in her home to discuss what to do.

Most of the group discouraged him from printing the list, worried he might go to prison, Sachs recalled in an interview Friday.

Chance remembered a late-night meeting where some students thought nothing would happen to Sachs if they went ahead with the plan. She recalled waking up her then-husband, Chuck Chance, the lawyer who later defended Sachs but initially advised him that printing the list would be a felony.

The students decided to publish the list, but the printer, who was afraid of committing a felony, refused. So they left a blank space in the paper and asked student government if they could use their mimeograph machine to make 22,000 copies of the list to insert into each paper.

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Sachs said the student government president at the time, Donald Middlebrooks, now a federal judge in South Florida, insisted on paying $200 for it out of his own pocket.

The day the issues were distributed, the Alachua County state attorney called for Sachs’ arrest. After being fingerprinted and posing for a mugshot, he was released and O’Connell held a news conference.

The president, Sachs said, squeezed his shoulder as he told reporters that the Alligator editor would likely be expelled, fired from the newspaper and sent to prison for a year if he was convicted.

In this image from a University of Florida video, Ron Sachs, editor of the Florida Alligator, appears at a 1971 news conference after the student newspaper published a list of abortion clinics and counseling centers. Behind him is then-UF president Stephen C. O'Connell, who said Sachs could be expelled and imprisoned. [University of Florida]
In this image from a University of Florida video, Ron Sachs, editor of the Florida Alligator, appears at a 1971 news conference after the student newspaper published a list of abortion clinics and counseling centers. Behind him is then-UF president Stephen C. O'Connell, who said Sachs could be expelled and imprisoned. [University of Florida]

O’Connell also consulted lawyers to find out if he could still remove Sachs because he had disobeyed him, but was told he could not exert prior restraint.

“Doing a year in prison was not something I felt was a good career move,” Sachs said. “But if we didn’t challenge it, then our education would be hollow. The facts and the truth served us well then.”

In court, Chuck Chance and another lawyer, Fletcher Baldwin, argued that the companion statute to Florida’s abortion law violated the First Amendment. The judge ruled that both parts of the law were unconstitutional, helping set in motion a push by the Legislature to rewrite Florida’s abortion laws the following year. Lawmakers added exceptions for cases of rape or incest if the pregnancy would “substantially impair” a mother’s health, or if the fetus was likely to have a “serious physical or mental defect.”

“I wouldn’t say it was the most liberal (law), but it certainly lost some of the severe restrictions of 1868,” Sachs said. “And, look, none of us were living back in 1868. Back then, it was probably mainstream policy thinking to have these kinds of prohibitions. But there’s an evolution in policy thought and philosophy.”

In January 1973, Roe v. Wade made access to abortion a constitutional right.

The same year, the Alligator was moved off campus and became the Independent Florida Alligator, continuing its tradition as a top training ground for U.S. journalists.

At the time, Sachs said, not many in the UF College of Journalism reached out to him or embraced what he was doing, he suspects out of fear. Today, the university that once sought to see him punished lauds Sachs on its website, calling his story a profile of “courage and conviction.”

“On very important issues, it’s not unusual for the pendulum to swing one way and maybe stay that way for a while and maybe swing back,” Sachs said. “We’re in a very divided time in our country, in our state, and I don’t think in my lifetime I’ve ever seen a more divided political time.”

He added: “It is what it is. Elected folks have the authority to pass policies, and policies can be challenged in courts sometimes, but this is where we are in 2022.”

In this image from a recent webinar, retired University of Florida journalism professor Jean Chance discusses her involvement in events that led to the Florida Alligator becoming an independent student newspaper in the early 1970s.
In this image from a recent webinar, retired University of Florida journalism professor Jean Chance discusses her involvement in events that led to the Florida Alligator becoming an independent student newspaper in the early 1970s. [ YouTube ]

Chance, who retired as a professor in 2003, wondered how college students will react to Friday’s Supreme Court ruling on the Roe case.

“It’s going to be very, very emotional and stressful,” she said. “It’s going to be an ugly time. I think there’s an undercurrent of racism, there’s an undercurrent of elitism. It just does not speak well for the moral compass for this country. But times change.”

• • •

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