Shooting from the lip

Strippers, nudists, dancing denizens of late night: David Wasserman's clients test the limits. So does he. ;;Chugging coffee in the late afternoon between bursts into his palm-sized cell phone, the attorney still managed to rapidly recount his recent hazardous flirtation with the most powerful politician in Orlando. ;;"Glenda Hood's jaw dropped," says attorney David Wasserman with a defiant smirk, recalling his threat to hound the mayor for the rest of her political career unless she moved to head off Orlando's anti-"rave" ordinance. As often happens, Wasserman lost this battle, as Hood championed the ban that effectively killed the late-night dance scene at downtown bars, primarily affecting The Club, whose owner argued that if raves were not allowed in a regulated setting, they would go underground and take the dangers of illicit drug use with them. Nonetheless, Wasserman hardly concedes defeat.;;"She can go forward. But if any children die as a result of this, I will put a picture of them on the side of a semi-truck and follow her around for the rest of her career," he says before grabbing for his coffee mug. Then the phone rings again. In fact, it rings constantly. "My phone is a reflection of the state of civil-rights abuses," he says.;;For almost a decade, Wasserman has been defying authority in representing a string of clients whose best defense is to wrap themselves in the U.S. Constitution. And until his recent ventures working for businesses promoting the late-night dance scene, most of his time has been spent -- and his money earned -- from businesses and groups bent on nudity, if not obscenity.;;For years, Wasserman has been the legal mind directing ongoing battles against Brevard County on behalf of nudists intent on preserving a section of Playalinda Beach for themselves. His arguments challenging the jurisdiction of county sheriffs on the federal beach have prompted the local Congress member to take action to close this loophole. And, despite a string of thumbs-downs, he continues to argue nudity cases in county, state and federal courts.;;It was after the Winter Park lawyer's prodding that the Seminole County Commission set aside plans this summer to enact an ordinance that would have made it illegal to sunbathe topless in backyards, while restricting topless clubs and adult bookstores. A negotiated middle ground would let clubs operate in "combat zones," and a more moderate nudity ordinance is in the works.;;And while he's "itching" to file lawsuits attacking the new city and state anti-rave laws, Wasserman says he must wait for the go-ahead from Club owner Jon Marsa, who has shied from tangling with authorities since the Sept. 8 City Council vote to close clubs at 3 a.m.;;Wasserman's legal challenges, outright threats and tricky strategies frequently are dismissed. Judges, prosecutors, police and politicians find it easy to side with those who believe that community standards should outweigh legal arguments based on civil-rights principles outlined on the parchment document that guides our nation's laws. But often enough, he triumphs, bolstering a reputation as a zealous advocate of unpopular causes.;;"At times I feel I'm banging my head against the wall," says Wasserman, 41. "Ultimately, I believe I'll bang through it." ;;More practically speaking, Wasserman is one of a few willing to field the threats and insults occasionally directed at those who represent purveyors of pornography, nudity or sex. Big law firms discourage their lawyers from such work, which can place attorneys in the midst of controversy and at odds -- politically and ideologically -- with prosecutors, politicians and judges.;;"I don't know how long I want to do this," says Steven Mason, an Orlando attorney for adult businesses on Orange Blossom Trail -- once represented by Wasserman -- that have been subjected to repeated raids by undercover agents and prosecution by state attorneys.;;Still, Wasserman slugs on, his passion rooted in his past. Born in St. Louis, he traces his belief in civil rights to his childhood when, while taking classes at a Jewish temple, he saw a movie about the murdering of blacks, homosexuals and Jews in the Holocaust. "If you don't look out for everybody's rights, yours aren't secure," he says.;;A one-time musician, he enrolled after high school in the Berkeley School of Music in Boston, one of more than 1,000 guitarists in the sequence. He dropped out after one semester ("I noticed the guitarists came and went and the lawyers and agents lasted") and transferred to Miami-Dade Community College; there, an injury sustained in a judo tourney sent him to his parents' home in Altamonte Springs to convalesce. There followed classes at Rollins College, and eventually a degree in political science that he earned while working at his family's clothing stores. But he also spent nearly two years in Israel, during which time his brother-in-law, a lawyer, sent Wasserman a book by the combative and flamboyant F. Lee Bailey. It sparked Wasserman to alter his plans yet again.;;His politics are not easily defined. Though a champion for liberal individual rights, he followed a summer internship with the British House of Commons by returning to England while a law student to work for the re-election of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. (He says he shared Thatcher's fiscal conservatism and philosophically agreed on the merits of privatizing government. "But you can be businesslike and have a heart," he adds.) Back home, he graduated from Florida State with a law degree in 1989 just as anti-pornography forces were forming coalitions around the country, including Orlando. Immediately he was drawn to the fight.;;Another former guitar student, Fairvilla Adult Mega Store owner Bill Murphy, convinced Wasserman to help counter the push to purge Orange and other Central Florida counties of adult entertainment businesses. Leading the charge here was the Greater Orlando Coalition Against Pornography (GOCAP), which mounted a $350,000 ad campaign and an aggressive effort supported by vice detectives under the direction State's Attorney Lawson Lamar, as well as the Orlando police chief and Orange County sheriff at the time.;;;"I was just a fresh punk out of law school," Wasserman says. "They had all the money. All we had was our brains." Attorney Rick Fletcher, Wasserman's sparring partner at the time, portrays him now as a friend and "crusader of a certain perspective." But he questions how Wasserman can continue to represent clients who, says Fletcher, profit from "the commercial exploitation of women. That's something I've never been able to understand. For every right, there's a responsibility." He suggests that Wasserman's pervasiveness in these issues is of his own making. "It's sort of like he's a gadfly on First Amendment issues.";;In 1990, GOCAP's campaign receded as public opinion turned and a grand jury refused to find that videos confiscated from adult theaters were obscene. Still, the Orange County Commission did pass more restrictive ordinances on nudity and adult entertainment.;;In fact, those ordinances kept Wasserman in business as he joined in defending Orange Blossom Trail clubs that faced being shut down under the new laws. For two years, he and attorney Frank Robbins maintained a temporary injunction that allowed the clubs to operate in defiance of the new laws. ;;It was during this and similar fights waged in four other Florida counties that Wasserman formed Friends of the First Amendment, a political-action group backed by the adult-entertainment industry. Using that as a springboard, Wasserman next worked as a political consultant for the national adult video association, convincing it to repackage itself as the Free Speech Coalition.;;Married and raising a stepdaughter, Wasserman insists he has no personal interest in what his clients are selling. Yet he has no misgivings about representing them."Those are the people testing the limits, expanding our constitutional rights and maintaining them.";;Today Wasserman is an affluent man with a home in Heathrow, an upscale community in Seminole County, and a suite of offices on Park Avenue with a long balcony that overlooks Central Park, the green jewel of downtown Winter Park. "I can charge a lot for those who can afford to pay," he says. "I use my other time for those who cannot. I'm able to pick and choose." A law clerk and two assistants, plus part-time support from other attorneys, helps carry the caseload. But when push comes to shove, paying clients come first.;;For years, Wasserman has represented the Central Florida Naturists, the group of nudists fighting for a piece of the Canaveral National Seashore. In April 1996, the nudists abandoned plans to perform -- in the nude -- an historical play on the beach after they were unable pay Wasserman to represent them. "An attorney of his caliber finds himself in a position where they're very busy," says Frank Cervasio, who leads the naturists. "He's the type [who], if he did have the time, he would have put it in pro bono.";;Often Wasserman's strategies are equal parts law and politics. The Seminole County Commission delayed its strict nudity ordinance after Wasserman threatened to file suit against each municipality in the county separately, and to bring adult clubs into their boundaries. His office wall displays a news article heralding the defeat of State's Attorney John Tanner, who had targeted Wasserman's clients in Volusia County before encountering opposition from the Friends of the First Amend-ment. (Tanner has since run again, and won.) And in 1992, the Friends campaigned against then Orange County Sheriff Walt Gallagher by distributing 10,000 copies of a picture showing deputies with their arms around the topless dancers they were charged with investigating. "You have to be able to make sure these people don't get political gain at your client's expense," Wasserman says.;;Wasserman makes no apologies for his showy side. And he laughs gleefully as he unravels a banner stating "Welcome Book Burners," which he hung from the balcony during his first weekend in the office to bait participants in a conservative rally across the street. "David, in typical fashion, couldn't let that go. Everyone knew David Wasserman was here," says attorney Larry Walters, who has worked with Wasserman since the early days of the Friends of the First Amendment.;;Yet in recognition of the need to temper his exuberance, Wasserman enrolled in yoga and tai chi. "I haven't found time to go since I signed up," he admits. A plaque in his waiting room displays the First Amendment, but he says he would like to take up other causes. "All the other rights have eroded. It's scary not for me, but for the future of our country.";;Perhaps this perspective best explains Wasserman's intensity about Orlando's anti-rave stance, which he likens to past generation-gap flaps that targeted Elvis and The Beatles. "It's always been that way. ... Unlike others, I don't fear the younger generation. They have the same First Amendment rights as anyone else.";;In another lull between cell-phone interruptionss, the lawyer recalls watching attorney F. Lee Bailey hold forth in the same bar where he is now reflecting on his own career. He declined to interrupt Bailey, but says he sees himself battling the same conflicts as the controversial defense attorney. "He gave people a fighting chance," Wasserman says. "At least I'm trying to make a difference."


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