Free to Speak Her Mind

A reminder from the ACLU's Robyn Blumner: That offensive expression she's been protecting could be your own

Shortly before Robyn Blumner arrived in Miami in 1989 to head the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, bombs shattered the doors to the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, which had exhibited contemporary art from the island. The home of a Miami-Dade Community College professor was also bombed, on the day the professor was scheduled to host a conference on U.S.-Cuba relations.

At about the same time, well-organized religious groups such as the Christian Coalition were asserting influence over local school boards and municipal governments -- pressing for religious instruction in classrooms and seeking censorship of certain music and television programs. And the ACLU was then challenging in court an ordinance passed by the Hialeah City Council that prohibited animal sacrifices for religious purposes.

The state chapter of the ACLU, headquartered in Miami, had hired Blumner as executive director because it needed a strong manager to confront these threats to basic freedoms and to fix a number of serious internal problems: In the previous eight years, the group had lost or fired five executive directors, it had faced bankruptcy as a consequence of waning membership, and two top officials had engaged in a turf war that had divided the organization. "No one survived the ACLU of Florida," Blumner recalls. "If directors tried to exert power, they were ushered out the door. And if they didn't exert power, everyone was disappointed in the way the office was operating -- and again they were ushered out the door."

A majority of the state ACLU board of directors was impressed with Blumner's experience and self-confidence, and they offered her the job. Before accepting, however, she issued a host of demands designed to transform Florida's ACLU into an efficient and professional operation. In firmly establishing those criteria, Blumner set a precedent for her relationship with the board of directors that finally brought stability, even as it engendered occasional disagreements. Simply put, she would stubbornly argue her position until she achieved her objectives. To some people, however, her goals seemed unduly rigid: She wanted to institute the primacy of the First Amendment -- which protects free expression -- above all other constitutional safeguards, and she vowed to challenge any so-called liberal programs, such as affirmative action, if they hindered free speech.

Blumner vigorously began straightening out the group's management and financial problems. Under her supervision, the state chapter has grown from 7000 to 10,000 members, its annual budget now tops $550,000, and a cadre of 300 pro bono lawyers represents the group's plaintiffs in 60 legal cases currently working their way through the courts. "Money is power," she notes. "If I could generate the resources for the organization, I knew my vision of the ACLU would hold sway. It was as simple as that."

The ACLU successfully challenged the Hialeah animal-sacrifice ordinance and helped to overturn a federal ruling that an album by rappers 2 Live Crew was obscene. It also blocked a judge's order requiring minors to obtain parental permission for abortions, and barred police from persecuting homeless people. "She has brought our message to lots of people and raised the awareness of civil liberties issues and First Amendment issues," says Ben Waxman, president of the Miami ACLU chapter and a member of the state board of directors. "She's a formidable adversary and she is very passionate about her views. She'll be hard to replace."

Last month Blumner, who is 35 years old, announced her intention to step down from the organization she rebuilt in order to join the St. Petersburg Times as a columnist and a member of that daily newspaper's editorial board. During a recent interview, Blumner reflected on the status of First Amendment protections in South Florida, the growth of the state's ACLU affiliate, and her decision to leave it.

What's the state of freedom of expression in South Florida today compared to what it was when you arrived eight years ago?

I don't think there's that much difference in how the First Amendment is respected. One of the credos of the ACLU is the Thomas Jefferson quote that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. What that means is you can never rest in your freedom battles. The same issues that caused controversy in 1950 cause controversy in 1990. It's astounding. The Ku Klux Klan wants to adopt a highway in Deltona, and the Florida Department of Transportation wrote them a letter saying, 'Because you are the Klan you can't adopt a highway. We won't allow you to participate in this program.' Clearly a violation of the First Amendment. The government cannot, based on the ideology of a group, preclude it from the privileges of citizenship and the benefits of government. That issue is no different from Skokie in the 1970s, [in which the ACLU defended the Nazi Party's right to stage a parade in a Jewish neighborhood of that Illinois town].

Have any recent events in South Florida forced the ACLU to be more vigilant?

I'll give you an example of the new school board in Dade County. Right off the bat they institute a more stringent uniform policy. The First Amendment provides that individuals can express themselves -- and that includes their manner of dress. If a young girl wants to wear a T-shirt to class that says, 'I support student rights,' or 'I support the NRA,' or 'I support Alex Penelas for mayor' -- that should be her constitutional right and it shouldn't be denied for a uniform policy.

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