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ACLU at 50 Names Its Dozen Most Significant Cases for New Times

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, so New Times asked the group, which is led by legendary executive director Howard Simon, to name its top 12 cases. Here are the results: 

12. Free Speech on Gun Safety for Doctors
The Florida Legislature enacted the first-in-the-nation statute barring doctors from asking their patients about the safe storage of guns in the home. The law interferes with needed conversations between doctors (especially pediatricians) and their patients about how to prevent deadly accidents in the home and suicides resulting from the negligent storage of firearms. The ACLU organized several organizations to file an amicus brief supporting doctors and urging the court to strike down the law as an unconstitutional restriction of freedom of speech. The ACLU amicus brief was influential in persuading the District Court to strike down the law, but a panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision of U.S. District Court. This case, which can dramatically affect the safety and lives of children, is still pending in federal appeals court. The outcome of this case could affect similar legislation in every state legislature.

11. Ending Censorship of the Arts in Miami
The ACLU filed numerous lawsuits addressing censorship of the arts in Miami — mostly of artists who reside in Cuba. In landmark litigation in 1991, the ACLU successfully represented the Cuban Museum of Arts & Culture and several of its directors when the Miami Commission voted 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 ruled that the museum’s exhibit without regard to the artists’ political beliefs and ideology was constitutionally protected expression. The court also found that the city commission was influenced by community outcry over the art when it decided to end the museum’s lease. The museum had also been bombed in 1988 and 1990. The First Amendment, the court noted, “must assure that government does not curtail valid expression." There were also cases involving the Miami Light Project, GableStage, and the Cuban band Los Van Van.

10. Employment Rights of Gays and Lesbians
In 1978, the ACLU represented an attorney who was a member of the Pennsylvania Bar but whose application to practice law in Florida was delayed by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, which had found the applicant qualified for admission to the bar in all respects, with the exception that he may not be “of good moral character” due to his “admitted homosexuality.” The Florida Bar asked the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether being gay disqualified an applicant for the bar for lack of “good moral character.” The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the applicant’s sexual orientation was insufficient to prevent admission to the bar, citing the board’s failure to produce a rational connection between sexual orientation and moral unfitness to be an attorney. Gay lawyers in Florida owe their careers to the work of two volunteer ACLU attorneys.

9. Religion in Public Schools

In 1998, acting on behalf of parents and schoolchildren, the ACLU (along with the law firm Steel Hector & Davis and People for the American Way) challenged the Lee County School Board’s decision to teach Bible history using a curriculum that presented biblical stories as actual historical events. The curriculum, developed by a North Carolina religious advocacy organization, reflected a sectarian viewpoint. The federal court enjoined part of the curriculum. The school board later eliminated the course when a revised curriculum that required a more rigorous academic study of the Bible did not attract a sufficient number of students. Following this case, no other school board in Florida adopted this curriculum that advances biblical literalism as actual historical events. 

8. Protecting Free Speech in Social Media
In November 2007, the ACLU represented a high-school student suspended for creating a Facebook page from her home computer on which she criticized one of her teachers as “the worst teacher she had ever had” and solicited comments from other students about that teacher. After receiving three comments, all of which criticized the student and supported the teacher, the student removed the page. But after learning of the posting, the principal suspended her, claiming the posting was “cyber bullying harassment towards a staff member.” The ACLU, noting that the posting contained no threats of violence toward the teacher and didn't disrupt activities at the school, asked the court to declare the principal’s actions a violation of free speech and to expunge the record of the suspension. The court held that the posting was protected speech. The case set a new standard for free speech in the then-nascent area of rights involving social media, ensuring students’ First Amendment right to off-campus speech without fear of punishment from their school.

7. The Rights of Homeless Persons
In 1988, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of approximately 6,000 homeless people in Miami. Miami police routinely arrested individuals for sleeping and eating in public places, and destroyed their personal property, including clothing, books, medicine, and shelter. Sweeps of homeless persons were typically done before high-profile events such as the Orange Bowl game. In 1991, U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins found that the city had violated the constitutional rights of homeless people and ordered a series of safe zones in which they could exist without police harassment. After two-and-a-half years of mediation, the ACLU and the city agreed to a settlement under which each homeless person who was arrested since 1988 or who had his or her property destroyed by Miami Police officers would be compensated. In addition, protocols were instituted governing how officers interact with homeless persons, and a special fund was set up with the remaining funds to help the homeless with housing, rent, utilities, etc. The work of ACLU volunteer attorneys to achieve the settlement in the Pottinger case, work that took more than a decade, continues to be regarded as a model for other cities, precluding arrest as the essential strategy for how police should deal with homeless persons. 

6. Blocking Gov. Rick Scott’s Plan to Test Welfare Applicants and State Employees for Drugs
Gov. Rick Scott campaigned on exploiting ugly stereotypes about people applying for government assistance, and after election, got the Florida Legislature to enact a law requiring drug-testing of applicants seeking Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The ACLU of Florida challenged the law on behalf of a Navy veteran and single parent who was also taking care of his disabled mother while attending college. The U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the preliminary injunction issued by the District Court that barred suspicionless urinalysis. “There is nothing so special or immediate about the government’s interest in ensuring that TANF recipients are drug-free so as to warrant suspension of the Fourth Amendment,” the circuit court observed. “The only known and shared characteristic of the individuals who would be subjected to Florida’s mandatory drug-testing program is that they are financially needy families with children... The simple fact of seeking public assistance does not deprive a TANF applicant of the same constitutional protection from unreasonable searches that all other citizens enjoy.”

5. Securing the Right to Marry
In 2008, Florida voters adopted a constitutional amendment placing the ban on same-sex marriage into the state constitution. Representing eight couples who had been married in states that recognized same-sex marriage, a widow whose partner of 47 years (they had been married four years) had just died, as well as SAVE, the ACLU filed suit in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee to require Florida to recognize marriages performed in other states. A similar case had been filed earlier by a couple seeking to marry. In January 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Hinkle ordered all Florida clerks to issue marriage licenses. 

4. The Terri Schiavo End-of-Life Controversy
The ACLU played a critical role in the prolonged battle over Theresa Schiavo’s right to forgo life-prolonging medical procedures. In October 2003, after six years of litigation with nine applications to Florida appeals courts, three applications to the Florida Supreme Court, three lawsuits in federal court, and an application to the U.S. Supreme Court that was denied, the Pinellas County Court, finding Schiavo to be in a persistent vegetative state, ordered the guardian to remove the nutrition and hydration tubes. But after then-Gov. Jeb Bush got President George W. Bush and Congress involved and the U.S. Supreme Court backed out, Theresa Marie Schiavo died March 31, 2005. The intrusion of former Governor Bush into the private affairs of a family, sweeping aside six years of litigation and a determination that Shiavo was in a persistent vegetative state, reverberated across the nation and shocked many. The signing of living wills reportedly increased dramatically because people wanted to ensure that their end-of-life decisions would not be made by politicians seeking to impose their religious views on a personal and tragic family situation.

3. Efforts to End Florida’s Reconstruction-Era Policy of Lifetime Disfranchisement of Those With Felony Convictions
The ACLU helped thousands regain their right to vote through the Board of Executive Clemency’s Restoration of Civil Rights process. A lawsuit in 2004 led to refranchising of approximately 125,000 released offenders because the Department of Corrections failed to assist inmates leaving prison with the restoration of their voting and civil rights, as required by state law. In 2007, the ACLU successfully lobbied the administration of former Gov. Charlie Crist for changes in the clemency process that came closer to making restoration of voting rights more automatic for those convicted of nonviolent offenses. About 150,000 Floridians regained their right to vote. Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi ended those reforms almost immediately upon taking office in 2011. The ACLU continues to work for the removal of the Civil War-era ban that denies approximately 1.5 million citizens the most basic right in a democracy.

2. Defending the Right to Vote and Election Reform
Following the 2000 election that exposed numerous irregularities in Florida election procedures, the ACLU, in collaboration with Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute, worked to ensure that voters would never again be deprived of the right to vote and not have their vote inaccurately tabulated. The ACLU addressed poll-worker training, ensuring that sample ballots and interpreters were available in Spanish and Kreyol, guidelines for recounts, and challenged inaccurate “felon purge” lists. The state banned punch-card ballots but authorized paperless direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines. Following a lawsuit in 2006, challenging the Sarasota congressional election in which approximately 18,300 votes were not recorded on the paperless DRE voting machines, the ACLU helped secure the end of touch-screen voting machines and their replacement by optical scan equipment that reads marked paper ballots.

1. Ending Florida’s Adoption Ban
In several lawsuits and work in the legislature, the ACLU argued that the ban was both unconstitutional and harmed children in need of a permanent and stable home, and that this discriminatory policy trapped children in the state’s troubled foster-care system. In 2008, the ACLU represented Martin Gill, a gay man who had been recognized as a model foster parent. Because he was a gay man, his application to adopt was denied. Gill applied to adopt two half-brothers who the state had placed with him as their foster parent. Following a lengthy trial at which national experts testified and all the evidence about gay parenting examined, a Miami-Dade Circuit judge declared the law unconstitutional, allowing Gill to adopt two half-brothers for whom he provided the only stable home they had known. The District Court of Appeal unanimously upheld the judgment of the circuit court. Attorney General Bill McCollum declined to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, and the 30-year ban came to an end.

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