Meet the new bosses

Two attorneys take control of the local ACLU, promising reform and a renewed fight for liberty

In 1990, a small group of undercover Orange County cops known as the Duke Boys devised a scheme to turn a small-time crack dealer named Charles Chestnut into a police informant. After arresting Chestnut in an Apopka nightclub, they drove him aimlessly around Apopka, detouring through the woods until they arrived at the courthouse, where they donned masks and used racial slurs during a mock trial.

Chestnut was certain his civil rights had been violated. So he contacted attorney Steve Mason, who in turn contacted the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, arguably the country's most important defender of individual rights and freedoms. The ACLU agreed to help Mason with the case, hosting a press conference to discuss the Chestnut's humiliating night with the Duke Boys.

After that, much to Mason's astonishment, the ACLU essentially disappeared -- no financial help, no legal footwork, no moral support, nothing until Mason worked a settlement with Orange County. "My recollection is that they didn't pay a dime," Mason says. "After two years of doing all the work, I decided to take a settlement. That's when the ACLU contacted us, saying they wanted a share."

It was not, perhaps, the proudest moment in the 83-year history of the ACLU, which began in response to abuses the U.S. government enacted on its citizens during World War I. That was a time when America first began to hone what the right to free speech meant. Unpatriotic speech, then as now, was suspect. But the effect was much worse than the bickering we hear today. The postal service banned socialist pamphlets, for example. And Eugene Debs, a socialist candidate for president, was imprisoned for condemning war and capitalism during a campaign speech.

Founded in January 1920, the ACLU's first victory came in April of the same year when the mayor of Passaic, N.J., permitted textile workers to organize after ACLU members hosted a candlelight vigil. Since then, the organization has been involved in some of the most important legal events in America's history: the Scopes monkey trial, the internment of Japanese prisoners, the anticommunist witch hunts of the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement of the '50s and '60s.

In Central Florida, the organization has posted some victories, but has mostly been overshadowed by what it has failed to do. Mason, for example, says members spend too much time grandstanding for the media and not enough in the legal trenches. "I do all the work, then see them out there running their mouths," he says.

Mason was once so angry at the ACLU that he thought about staging a small coup. "I thought it was time to get some new blood in there and move some old blood out."

In February, the coup finally came. But it wasn't Mason leading the charge. It was Scott Rost, an unassuming, affable attorney who was elected chair of the Central Florida chapter, the first attorney to lead the chapter in at least 15 years. Rost, a 41-year-old commercial litigator with the Doran, Wolfe, Rost & Ansay law firm, rose to the position in what he jokes was a bloodless coup, promising to reform the chapter by making it more efficient and more visible.

One way to do that, he says, is to streamline the chapter's monthly meetings, keeping nonessential rhetoric to a minimum. "Essentially, I want to invite everyone to put their time and money where their mouth is," he says.

ACLU members also voted in 39-year-old First Amendment attorney Larry Walters, a partner with the Weston, Garrou & DeWitt law firm, to be the legal-panel chair, a position Rost held the previous two years. Rost and Walters have been friends since their days at FSU law school, were partners in the same law firm from 1992 to 2000 and have both recently celebrated personal milestones: Walters was married several months ago; two weeks ago Rost's wife gave birth to the couple's third child.

In less than two months, Rost and Walters have already enlisted the help of a six-member panel of attorneys to screen the dozens of letters the chapter receives each month, pleading with the ACLU to take their case.

Previously, the legal-panel chair would sift through the mail, searching for cases worthy of investigation. The chapter's board of directors would then question the director to further flesh out cases worth the ACLU's time and effort. The questioning often led to long, fruitless digressions.

"You had nonlawyers saying we should do this and do that," Walters says. "'We're the ACLU, go file this lawsuit.' If you have more lawyers in the room, it's more likely you'll find someone who will say, 'I will do something about this.'"

Membership for the Central Florida chapter has been surprisingly good. The chapter is above 1,000 members -- up from 700 in 1990. The problem has been in trying to get members to do something. Participation has been "gruesome," according to Alan Lunin, a retired Navy labor-relations specialist who chaired the chapter from 1995 to 2002.

"We saw a healthy rise in membership," he says. "But there's a difference between that and getting people to do things."

Central Florida's conservative mindset is one reason for the chapter's lackluster performance. Lunin says he was always very careful how he spun issues so as not to overly upset conservatives. Drug testing in high schools, for example. "I would say it is the parent's right, not the government's right, to raise your children," Lunin says. "Your children have the right to be free of government intervention, but not from you."

Chapter members usually felt a conservative backlash whenever they took on religious icons. In 1988, for example, the local chapter won a court case to remove a Christian cross from a publicly-owned water tower in St. Cloud. "I heard a lot of 'You're the anti-Christ,'" says Warren Keiner, a 53-year-old money manager who chaired the ACLU from 1990 to 1995.

Lunin also says the local chapter suffers because the state ACLU is preoccupied with the Miami-Broward County area. He says the state ACLU, based in Miami, should be more willing to share resources and programs.

"The state headquarters cares about Miami. I don't know how much they care about the rest of the state," he says. "They have no problem paying for people to travel for fund raising, but they do have a problem sending out people for other kinds of reasons. Which brings to mind: What is the fund raising for?"

Keiner, who served on the state board for several years, agrees the state chapter hasn't been involved with the Central Florida chapter as much as he'd like. But resources are limited. And Florida, with 14 chapters, still has large regions without an ACLU presence.

"Everybody within the organization is doing as much as they can," he says. "Highly qualified people put in a lot of time for very little wages, people who could make a lot more money if they were interested in advancing their careers."

Whatever the reason, the Central Florida chapter has failed to live up to the standards set by its own members.

In March 2001, Lunin collected a list of volunteers to help the chapter become more active. He gave the list to board members with the idea that they would form committees for everything from fund raising to maintaining the website. A year later, board members still hadn't formed the committees. "Not a one followed up on it," he says.

Likewise, the reason Keiner says he hung on as chapter chairman is because nobody else would step forward. "I could never get anyone on the board to assume the responsibility of the chair," he says. "Finally I said, 'Fine. If I create the vacuum, they will fill it.'"

Already, however, there are signs the chapter is improving. Rost has been contacting ACLU attorneys in Miami, building a relationship that should lead to more court cases filed by the Central Florida chapter. One possible case: religious organizations, funded by the state, going into public schools to mentor students. A proposal by a Polk County Baptist preacher to erect a monument bearing the 10 Commandments in the lobby of the Polk County administration building -- "an accident waiting to happen," Walters says -- is another possible case.

The fresh leadership couldn't have come at a better time. Civil liberties are under assault in the name of the War on Terrorism. Internet privacy has already taken a hit, and a large number of legal aliens are being detained and deported for obscure or insignificant reasons.

"I think things will get worse before they get better," Walters says. "The pendulum has begun to swing to the right."

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