This year, the ACLU of Florida is celebrating its 50th anniversary. That’s half a century of defending the rights and freedoms of Floridians.
This timeline examines some of the most significant cases and historic moments in the history of the organization:
1965 – Founding: In response to the anti-Communist scare of the era, ACLU chapters in Miami, Gainesville and Tampa join together to form the ACLU of Florida. As described in the original 1965 charter, the organization’s mission will be “To uphold the guarantees of freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and thought, as provided in the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights and to uphold the Florida State Constitution and Declaration of Rights; to uphold due process of law and equal protection under the law as provided by the Constitution; to encourage an appreciation of our basic liberties; to perpetuate, through a program of education and positive action, respect and devotion for freedom and liberty.”
1969 – School Desegregation: The ACLU enters the Dade county Public School desegregation case on behalf of more than 200,000 students.
1970 – Double Jeopardy: The ACLU represents Joseph Waller (now known as Omali Yeshitela) who, in an act of civil disobedience during a 1966 demonstration, tore down a mural at St. Petersburg City Hall that depicted African-Americans in degrading caricatures. Waller was prosecuted under a municipal ordinance and convicted, then prosecuted again under a more sever state statute for the same event, receiving a five-year sentence. The ACLU appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held in Waller v. Florida that the prohibition against double jeopardy barred a second trial on criminal charges for the same offense.
1972 – Right to Protest: Vietnam Veterans Against the War and its individual members were counseled by the ACLU when suspicion arose that the group's rights were being violated by a Grand Jury's summoning of members to Tallahassee around the time of the Republican National Convention in Miami.
1978 – Employment Rights of Gays and Lesbians: Before 1978, gay men and lesbians could not be attorneys in Florida. In 1978 the ACLU represents Robert Eimers when his application to the Florida Bar was sent to the Florida Supreme Court for review. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners found Eimers qualified for admission to the bar with one exception: he may fail to be of “good moral character” due to his “admitted homosexuality.” The Florida Supreme Court, in Eimers v. Florida Board of Bar Examiners, ruled that an applicant’s sexual orientation was insufficient to prevent his admission to the bar, citing the Board’s failure to produce a rational connection between sexual orientation and moral fitness to be an attorney.
1981 – Access to Abortion Care: The ACLU successfully challenged a new state law that prohibited minors from obtaining abortions without parental consent and required spousal notification of a planned abortion. The ACLU victory is upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
1985 – Worker Identification cards: In 1959, Palm Beach enacted an ordinance, purportedly to reduce crime, that required certain workers in fields primarily filled by minority workers – domestic servants, taxi drivers, retail clerks, and hotel, restaurant and bar employees – to register with the chief of police and obtain a worker’s identification card that listed the employee’s race and that had to be produced on demand. In 1985, the ACLU successfully challenged the ordinance on behalf of a restaurant waitress and a worker hired to deliver ice to the Breakers Hotel. During the appeal, a state law was passed preempting local worker registration ordinances.
1988 –Police Abuse of the Homeless: For years, police in Miami routinely arrested the homeless for engaging in life-sustaining activities such as eating and sleeping in public. Police sweeps of the homeless were instituted, particularly before high-profile events such as the 1988 Orange Bowl, and homeless people had their personal property seized and destroyed. In 1988, the ACLU files a lawsuit on behalf of approximately 6,000 homeless persons living in Miami. After four years of litigation, U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins found in Pottinger v. City of Miami that the City’s practices violated constitutional provisions and ordered safe zones in which the homeless could congregate without police harassment. In 1998, further appeals and mediation result in the establishment of a fund to provide homeless persons who were arrested or had their property destroyed by Miami police with compensation and an agreement that sets protocol for how police officers interact with homeless persons. The Pottinger agreement is now a model for effective policing in cities across the country.
1991 – Censorship of the Arts: The ACLU successfully represents the Cuban Museum of the Arts after the Miami City Commission votes unanimously to terminate the Museum’s lease and evict it from a City-owned building because it exhibited works by artists living in Cuba. The federal court rules that the Museum’s exhibit and auction of art without regard to the artists’ political beliefs and ideology was constitutionally protected expression and that the Commission was influenced by community outcry when it decided to terminate the lease. (The museum had been bombed in 1988 and 1990.) The First Amendment, the Court notes, “must assure that government does not curtail valid expression because of a majority, a plurality or a segment of its constituency wishes to prohibit or penalize that expression… It is ironic that the [censorship] in this case is the result of actions taken by those who claim to so loathe the governmental intolerance existing in a communist Cuba.” This would not be the last time that the ACLU brings First Amendment challenges against policies by Miami City and County restricting speech regarding Cuba involving everything from school books and concerts to a baseball team.
1992 – Freedom of “Nasty” Speech: The ACLU files an amicus brief on behalf of Luther Campbell and the South Florida-based rap group 2 Live Crew, known for their raunchy lyrics, in the group’s successful First Amendment appeal of a federal court judgment that declared their popular album “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” obscene. The ACLU also represents a record store owner who was arrested for selling a 2 Live Crew album to an undercover police officer. The Appeals Court holds that the album was artistic speech protected by the First Amendment and the Supreme Court denies review, ending Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro’s threats to arrest the performers and anyone selling the album.
1993 – Discriminatory Arrests: Police officers in Miami and Miami-Dade County routinely arrested day laborers under an ordinance prohibiting “loitering for purposes of temporary employment.” Some 500 arrests were made, all of Hispanic males identified by police as “undesirables” standing on the street seeking work. Many were arrested when undercover police, posing as employers, pulled up in a van saying they needed people to work on a project, then handcuffing the laborers once they entered the van. The ACLU files suit on behalf of hundreds of day laborers, some of them arrested more than once, charging that the Ordinance violated First Amendment rights and that the arrests constituted illegal discrimination based on race and national origin. A settlement is eventually reached with both the City and County compensating those arrested $2,000 per arrest.
1998 – Religion in the Public Schools: Acting on behalf of parents and students, the ACLU (with the law firm of Steel Hector & Davis and People for the American Way) challenges the Lee County School Board’s decision to teach a Bible History class that presented Biblical stories as historical events. The federal court enjoins part of the curriculum that reflected a sectarian viewpoint. The School Board later eliminates the course when a revised curriculum that required a more rigorous academic study of the Bible does not attract a sufficient number of students.
2000 – Election Reform: Following the flawed 2000 election, which exposed numerous irregularities in Florida election procedures, the ACLU of Florida begins a focus on voting rights that has shaped its work ever since. The ACLU creates the Florida Equal Voting Rights Project in collaboration with Florida Legal Services and Florida Justice Institute. Staff work to ensure that voters are never again deprived of the right to vote or have their vote tossed out or wrongly tabulated. Using lawsuits, lobbying and advocacy, the Project addresses a variety of issues: poll worker training, ensuring that sample ballots were available in multiple languages, establishing guidelines for vote recounts, the restoration of voting rights for former felons, and correcting inaccurate “felon purge” lists. After the 2000 Election, the state bans punch-card ballots, but authorizes Direct Recording Electronic voting machines. The ACLU later helps secure the end of these paperless touchscreen voting machines, replacing them by optical scan equipment that reads marked paper ballots.
2001 – Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement: Following the shooting death of a number of unarmed persons by Miami police officers, the federal indictment of a dozen officers and the conviction of six officers for planting weapons to cover up the shootings, the ACLU, with the NAACP and other organizations, draft and campaign for an amendment to the City Charter that creates a Civilian Investigative Panel with subpoena power to investigate allegations of police misconduct. The Charter Amendment is overwhelmingly approved by the voters, making the Civilian Investigative Panel a permanent part of Miami’s governmental structure.
2004 – Privacy of Medical Records: In 2003, Palm Beach County Sheriff officers executed a warrant on conservative talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh’s doctor and seized Limbaugh’s medical records in a criminal investigation to determine if Limbaugh had been “doctor shopping” to illegally obtain prescription pain medication. The ACLU argues in a 2004 amicus brief that a warrant fails to meet requirements that protect the right of privacy guaranteed by the Florida Constitution and that law enforcement officers violated state law by using the more intrusive search method rather than obtaining a subpoena. In so doing the ACLU defended the right to privacy of medical records for every Floridian by ensuring that law enforcement complies with the procedural protections required by the constitution and state law.
2005 – Terri Schiavo End of Life Controversy: The ACLU played a critical role in the prolonged battle over the right of Theresa Schiavo, who had been in a permanent vegetative state for more than a decade , to forego life-prolonging medical procedures. The battle involved six years of litigation, including numerous appeals to both the Florida and U.S. Supreme Courts. After a state court ordered the feeding tubes removed, Gov. Bush signed a law giving the governor the authority to “issue a one-time stay” specific to this case and then issued an executive order – against the court’s order against her wishes as determined by the court – compelling doctors to subject Mrs. Schiavo to surgical reinsertion of a feeding tube. The ACLU, representing Schiavo’s guardian and husband Michael Schiavo, filed a lawsuit challenging the law and executive order. The Florida Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional. Gov. Bush then pressured President George W. Bush and Congress to pass extraordinary legislation that granted the federal district court jurisdiction to consider Schiavo’s case, regardless of a state court’s decision. Within days, with attorneys working under hours-long deadlines late into the night, challenges were heard and appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied review. Theresa Marie Schiavo died on March 31, 2005.
2009 – School-Sponsored Religion: The ACLU sues the Santa Rosa County School District following complaints over many years from students and parents about school-sponsored prayers and other religious practices led by teachers and school personnel. In a rare move, the school board admits liability for a pattern of constitutional violations and, jointly with the ACLU, submits a proposed consent order to the federal district court to correct the violations.
2010 – Adoption Ban: In 1978, Florida passed a law banning gay men and lesbians from adopting. For over a decade, and through several lawsuits, the ACLU led efforts in the courts and the legislature to end the unconstitutional ban that leaves children in need of a permanent loving home to languish in the state’s troubled foster care system. In 2008, the ACLU represents Martin Gill, a gay man who sought the adoption of two half-brothers he was foster parenting. The ACLU also launches a three-year public education and legislative campaign aimed at increasing public support for a change in the policy. After a lengthy trial a Miami-Dade judge declares the law unconstitutional. The state appeals and the Third District Court unanimously upholds the judgment of the Circuit Court. When the Attorney General declines to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court in 2010, Martin Gill is able to adopt the two children and provide them the only permanent home they had ever known -- and many more Florida children are finally allowed to have a “forever family.”
This timeline and more information about the work of the ACLU of Florida is available in our 2014-15 Annual Report!