Despite Turmoil, Florida Needs the ACLU Now More than Ever

This op-ed was originally published in Tampa Bay Times.

I have joined the board of the ACLU of Florida.

When first asked, I declined, wary of recent discord. But I was encouraged to stand for election and help right the ship. Two months in, I feel good about my decision, especially after spending quality time with staff at a Saturday gathering in Miami.

The American Civil Liberties Union is a controversial group, no question. But controversy is something I know something about from having led the opinion pages of two major Florida newspapers. I signed on because the ACLU’s core values — fighting government abuse and defending civil liberties, including the freedom of speech, religion, assembly, privacy, due process, voting, and equal protection — are at my core, too.

No matter your politics, the ACLU has probably annoyed you. For when it comes to defending people’s rights, it’s an equal-opportunity fighter, even if it means, as one former director said, “defending my enemy.”

I’m not a fan of the NRA, but I’m proud that the ACLU represented the National Rifle Association in a case decided last week by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case involved a New York regulator who tried to coerce banks to blacklist the organization. By successfully defending the NRA, the ACLU reinforced everyone’s First Amendment protections against vengeful government leaders.

Perhaps most famously, 47 years ago, the ACLU defended the free-speech rights of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., where hundreds of Holocaust survivors lived. If government can squelch speech it finds offensive, it can prevent any speech it dislikes.

This week, ACLU-Florida went to court to fight Florida’s new book-ban law. Consider: if you want a book banned and the school district refuses, you can appeal to Tallahassee. But if you don’t want a book banned, you get no appeal. Talk about viewpoint discrimination.

Our lawyers also are fighting Florida’s “Stop Woke” law, which restricts how college professors can discuss systemic racism and sex is crimination for fear students might be made uncomfortable. History is full of uncomfortable truths. The danger of government censorship is one of them.

We are also fighting a new anti-immigrant law that says only citizens, not legal residents, can register people to vote. The law keeps Spanish-speaking residents from participating in voter registration drives.

And we’re fighting the new law that defines street protests as riots and lets participants be charged with felonies. I’m reminded of the civil rights protesters who walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, only to be beaten with billy clubs and sprayed with tear gas. If that were to happen in Florida today, those freedom marchers would become convicted felons.

In the last year, the Florida ACLU has faced internal disruption and reorganization. The national organization dismissed the state board. There’s a lawsuit, so I can’t say more. But from where I sit, the reboot has revitalized the organization.

At our Miami gathering, I saw an energized staff engaged in a noble mission. We’ve also hired a dynamic new executive director familiar to many South Florida residents: Bacardi Jackson, a seasoned litigator who graduated from Stanford University and Yale Law School, and spent the past four years at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She is the right leader at the right time.

Jackson takes the torch from the legendary Howard Simon, who served as executive director for more than two decades before retiring in 2018 and returning as interim director last August.

I am joined on the new 14-member board by doctors, lawyers, professors and administrators with a diversity of viewpoints who stand ready to support our executive director in defending your rights.

I tell you all this because it’s a discouraging time in our country. People on both sides of the aisle believe our democracy is threatened and no one is working the halls of government for us. But you should know that ACLU staffers are there, trying to advance your rights.

The ACLU is a nonpartisan, public policy membership organization supported by grants and donations. I hope you will join me in supporting the ACLU-Florida. It’s a righteous cause.

Rosemary Goudreau O’Hara is a board member for the ACLU of Florida, and the former opinion page editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel and The Tampa Tribune. She lives in Dunedin.