The grown-up ACLU

It's been an awkward transition period for the Central Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a fact evident in the demeanor of new interim board president Samir Gupte.

"Before we get started, any kind of context you can give on the purpose to give us a call?" he asks, settling into the chapter's conference room on East Colonial Drive.

It should be obvious. On Sept. 3, the ACLU of Florida announced via press release that the agency's four-county central chapter — covering Orange, Osceola, Lake and Seminole counties — had re-formed. With the help of regional director Joyce Hamilton Henry, who joined the ACLU in August 2008, the chapter had established an interim board, and hoped to reconvene its "freedom's watchdog" efforts in a manner that catered to local concerns. It would be a new beginning.

But the old ending still lingered in the air. After three years of obstinate hell-raising in defiance of the state and national ACLU leadership, former chapter president George Crossley was unceremoniously ousted in December, taking the region's board with him. The chapter was placed into receivership — meaning the old board was disbanded and the chapter's funds were taken over by a overseer appointed by the state ACLU — and Hamilton Henry was tasked with rekindling the flame. Ten months later, what's emerged is a kinder, gentler ACLU chapter seemingly ready to fall in with the approach of its ruling bodies, a "respectable" outfit of community pillars more interested in re-establishing the sober brand of logic and pragmatism dictated by ACLU bylaws than revisiting the Crossley publicity parade.

They've got some ground to make up.

"Yes, there was a time when people distanced themselves from the organization," says Hamilton Henry. "And we are intending to address that directly."

The core ingredients are still there, says Gupte. The ACLU's focus has been and always will be on the protection of civil rights, no matter on which side of the political aisle the issues fall. The Constitution is key.

"On a national scale, almost a global scale, this is a very interesting, intriguing, but challenging time for civil liberties in America," he says. "If you think about the war on terror — real or perceived — and the impact that it has had; if you think about the demographics of the country today, which look dramatically different than they did when the country was born 220-some years ago; if you think about the as-yet unresolved role of religion in society — there is a separation of church and state, but what does that mean? … So from a national perspective, with civil liberties, there's just a lot of stuff on the table to discuss and resolve."

The goals of the Central Florida chapter, he and Hamilton Henry say, will be directly related to the region's needs. The current focus includes voting rights restoration for ex-convicts, racial profiling (in Orange County, blacks are targeted; in Lake County, Mexican immigrants receive the brunt of injustice, says Hamilton Henry), a bill of rights for high school students (including free speech protection from teacher and administrator reprisal) and the big issue of gay adoption, which after a favorable ruling in Miami (see "Florida's case against gay adoption," Dec. 18) is headed toward the Florida Supreme Court.

In short, it's a tall order.

"As we look to resurrect the chapter, it may take us some time. We're going to have to start slow," says Gupte. "But we're going to do all of the good foundational stuff as far as having good solid meeting protocols and committees with strong leaders that have enough resources to implement or execute events."

The fledgling chapter, says Gupte, has already been more successful in three months of recruiting than the previous chapter was in its last two years; there are more than 1,000 people on the member rolls, although many of them are inactive due to the recent confusion. He hopes to "kind of invite them to come back to check us out and give us a chance." (The chapter holds meetings the first Tuesday of each month; see for details).

Crossley, who says he was finally tossed out by the state organization on the technicality of wearing an ACLU T-shirt at a non-ACLU event (the ACLU of Florida blamed "board dysfunction and flagrant disregard for ACLU policies and procedures"), doesn't see a bright future for the "protocols" and "committees" of the organization locally.

"I don't see how it will have any real impact," he says. "They want your money, they want your silence and they want you to do what you're told. They proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that free speech is not what they want."

"They'll have plenty of cocktail parties," he adds. "But they ain't gonna do a damn thing."

Hamilton Henry, naturally, has higher hopes: that a new face on an old national institution can bring it back to relevance.

"In reality, it means that we have to be very conscious and vigilant in our work to educate and re-educate the public about what we're about and what we're doing, and invite them so that they can see and hear for themselves," she says. "We can't do it alone."

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