Frank Talk About Free Speech

Attorney Victor Diaz chats up the ACLU's Howard Simon

SIMON: But wait a minute. What we're talking about here are artistic judgments. You're avoiding the public-policy problem facing Miami-Dade County now. If the Concert Association of Florida puts on a ballet and they hire as one of their principal dancers a person who's a Cuban national, if the Miami City Ballet puts on a ballet, and a member of their company is a Cuban national, why should they fear losing their cultural-arts grant from the county? We're talking about who should make artistic decisions.

DIAZ: They shouldn't have to fear that inappropriately. They should have to know that it's a consequence of it where it's appropriate. The reason that the issues related to Cuba are the hot-button issues in this town is that we can't escape the fact that in this town there are 700,000 Cuban Americans. There are 10,000 people in this town who had a relative murdered by Fidel Castro. There are 50,000 people in this town who've had a relative tortured by Fidel Castro. There are thousands of former political prisoners in this town. For these people and for the 500,000 Cuban Americans who are old enough to remember having to leave their homeland, the issues related to Fidel Castro are not a historical footnote; they are living, breathing wounds.

SIMON: Victor, we're talking about public policy, and the public policy of Miami-Dade County has been official censorship. Debbie Ohanian wants to rent the American Airlines Arena for a Cuban-music festival. Why should that be prohibited?

DIAZ: I think the United States Supreme Court is going to answer that for us very quickly, and it's not going to be prohibited. My prediction. But let me ask you another question: Why doesn't Debbie Ohanian put on that production in the City of Miami Beach in the Theater of the Performing Arts or the Colony? And that's a question that people are entitled to ask. She has the right to choose any forum she wants --

SIMON: No she doesn't.

DIAZ: She should have the right to choose any forum she wants to present her point of view. Let's assume that becomes the law in this community, that she can pick any forum she wants. Unless she's trying to make a political point, why would she insist on doing it in the heart of the Cuban-American community? There is some element of provocation going on; there is some element of insensitivity to what's going on.

SIMON: Did you consider the fact that maybe it's also the best venue in the area?

DIAZ: I told this to Debbie today, I said, "Debbie, if you win your lawsuit, I can't wait for you to put on a Los Van Van concert at the American Airlines Arena, because you're going to lose your shirt. You're not going to fill the arena and you're going to just lose your shirt and you will send the best message to deter people. She may fill the hall once but she won't fill it twice.

I want to take this outside Miami for a minute. We do need to understand these issues outside the context of Miami. Another thing on which I think Howard and I agree is that by continuing to frame these debates only as Cuban issues, we make it less likely that the debate will be heard.

SIMON: I agree with you. This is not a Cuban issue; these are generic constitutional issues. But they are generic constitutional issues that apparently have application everywhere else in the country except here. Everywhere else in the country it is recognized you cannot deny public facilities based on the point of view that's going to be expressed or on the messengers delivering it. Everywhere else in the country it's recognized that you cannot deny cultural-arts grants because you don't like the particular message. Everywhere else except here. How could it be that Los Van Van has a 25-city tour and they have to --

DIAZ: Well, everywhere else in the country there's not 700,000 Cuban Americans.

SIMON: That does not justify suspension of the First Amendment. I sat through hours of those negotiations [between city officials and Ohanian] and they were pointless, needless, frustrating. It was as if the people were acting on Joe Carollo's instructions: Do what you can to prevent this concert from taking place in this county.

DIAZ: And I think some people are rethinking the wisdom of that policy. But my position is that the easiest way to get to where you want us to be is to let this matter be resolved in the courts. I believe that the political fallout, the emotional fallout, the divisiveness -- all of those things will be minimized if the result comes from a process that we as Americans have been taught to respect, which is the rule of law. You know that it's much easier for you to get the county commissioners to amend the ordinance to create a cultural and people-to-people exchange if they're responding to a Supreme Court opinion. The county attorney will go in and say, "You can go to your constituents and explain to them that you have no choice. The United States Supreme Court ruled this way and therefore you have no choice but to do it this way."

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