Free to Speak Her Mind

Why do you think people continue to have difficulties with the First Amendment?

Part of the reason is that people in general don't understand their rights. They know they have freedom of speech; they just don't understand that the next guy does. Part of the reason for that is the lack of ability on the part of many people to think in concepts, to think in abstractions. You can't understand what the ACLU does unless you can think conceptually. You have to be able to lift a principle from one set of facts and apply it directly to another set of facts. If you can't do that, if all you're doing is looking at who we're representing and whether you like the Klan or not -- and not whether their constitutional rights should be protected -- then you'll never understand what the ACLU is about. You'll never understand what the Bill of Rights is about.

How did your strong support for the First Amendment evolve?

I felt intuitively that freedom of expression was the base from which all other rights derive. Without freedom of thought, freedom of expression, your right to redress the government is meaningless. None of these other rights has any substance unless you have a right to freedom of expression. And the reason this has come into such sharp relief is because freedom-of-expression rights have been de-emphasized by both the right and the left.

Has your experience in South Florida helped cement your commitment to the First Amendment?

There are times when the Cuban community reacts violently to dissenters, to those people who believe that dialogue with Castro is the appropriate way to liberate the Cuban people. I think that is a very sad aspect of this community. I think the police and public officials should have done more to flush out who in the Cuban community has engaged in terrorist activities. There tends to be [among officials] a sensibility that one protects one's own.

What has the ACLU done to improve the climate?

There's something important to remember: When Cuban community members show up outside a [place like] Centro Vasco to protest a singer, that's their right. They have a First Amendment right to be out there protesting, and the ACLU would represent those protesters and their right to be out there. The only thing I find distasteful is the fact that they resort to violence to get their point across.

Why hasn't the ACLU pressed the police to investigate the bombings, threats, and other illegal activities extremists in the Cuban community have used in an attempt to enforce a monolithic view of Cuba?

The state board hasn't done anything on that. It's really a local-chapter matter. There has been some opposition from the local chapter to the lackadaisical way a lot of these investigations have been handled. There has not been one trial on free-speech terrorism in Miami. Not one. I don't know if that just means these bombers have been lucky, or good, or whether the police haven't been trying hard enough. We should be riding the back of the police to do more because [violence] certainly chills freedom of expression down here.

But the ACLU has never sued any police department for failing to intervene -- for example, at the Gonzalo Rubalcaba performance at the Gusman Center in downtown Miami, when an angry crowd of protesters spit at and even assaulted concertgoers. Why hasn't the ACLU spoken out?

What's the ACLU to do? You could make the case that the government didn't show up, but they did. They may have not been as vigorous in enforcing the law as they should have been, but that's a really tough case to make, and you had better have videotape that shows that quite clearly if you want to win in court. You just can't point to a group of police and say, 'They let him spit on me,' and expect to have a judge consider the case. You have to have things more clarified to take legal action.

As the state's ACLU director, you write a twice-monthly column for the St. Petersburg Times, but you've never discussed the climate of intolerance in Miami's Cuban community.

What's there to say -- it's a bad thing that there's no tolerance for diverse opinions in Miami? The police should do more? That's about it, that's the opinion. If I were to write an opinion piece, it would probably be on the rights of the anti-Castro folks to protest, because I think, in the liberal community, that's misunderstood. [Liberals] may not naturally appreciate the fact that, even though they may recoil from the angry crowds that gather whenever there's a suggestion of dialogue with Castro, the fact is that these angry crowds are merely exercising their First Amendment rights. Sometimes the liberal community is willing to sacrifice or circumscribe the rights of those people they don't agree with. Censorship is just as dangerous when it comes from the left as when it comes from the right.

From its inception 75 years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union has fought governmental encroachment on personal freedoms. But in South Florida's community of Cuban exiles, the rancor and periodic intimidation arising from clashing viewpoints have -- almost without exception -- come from private individuals and groups. "When a private institution or private segments of the community act in ways that otherwise impose on freedom of speech, the ACLU has often taken the position that that's not a violation of rights," says Jeanne Baker, a state board member and a Florida representative to the national ACLU office. "There are many social and economic wrongs that the ACLU cares about but doesn't do anything about."

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