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ACLU of Florida at the RNC: August 28 – Volunteers and Voter Suppression

Baylor Johnson
Online Advocacy Coordinator, ACLU of Florida

ACLU of Florida VolunteersOn Tuesday, August 28, the Republican National Convention in Tampa fully got underway, and the ACLU of Florida had volunteers on the ground to make sure people knew their First Amendment rights. Our volunteers were fantastic in their sheer numbers, in their work ethic and in their enthusiasm for protecting and celebrating the Constitution.

Most of our volunteers met at our Tampa office in the morning for a quick orientation before heading out to the downtown area to begin distributing information and making contact with protesters. We all collected materials at our mobile resource center, then three groups of volunteers went out to different areas of protest activity – one group to the “Romneyville” camp, one to the official march staging area, and one to the “public viewing area,” the 2012 RNC’s answer to earlier conventions’ “First Amendment Zone.”

The after-effects of Tropical Storm Isaac and the condensed convention schedule were still having an impact on the number of protesters out on the streets, but our volunteers made contact with multiple groups of demonstrators and made sure that they received our First Amendment Toolkits.

One group of volunteers even came across a group from Westboro Baptist Church and a surrounding group of counter-protesters. The First Amendment, after all, protects everyone’s speech, even groups diametrically opposed to one another.

ACLU of Florida Field Coordinator Nikki Fisher distributing material at the Rally Against Voter Suppression in Ybor CityIn the evening, staff and volunteers attended the “Rally and March Against Voter Suppression” at Centennial Park in Ybor City, a district known for its arts and nightlife to the northeast of downtown Tampa and site of many official and unofficial RNC parties.

Our board president, Ret. Col. Mike Pheneger was invited to speak to the crowd about our work fighting voter suppression in Florida (Note: by watching video, YouTube and Google will put a permanent cookie on your computer). But as with every protest event that our staff and volunteers attended, our primary purpose was to inform everyone about their First Amendment rights.

ACLU of Florida at Rally and March Against Voter Suppression After the rally, a few hundred protesters from many different groups and carrying many different messages marched the streets of Ybor City.

Even in their reduced numbers, it was an impressive display of First Amendment activity on the second official, but first full, day of the Republican National Convention.

(Note: Images or descriptions of protests during the Republican National Convention do not represent an ACLU of Florida endorsement of the individual, organization or message. The ACLU of Florida is in Tampa to promote the First Amendment rights of all groups.)


ACLU of Florida at the RNC: August 27 – Welcome to Tampa

Baylor Johnson
ACLU of Florida Online Advocacy Coordinator

Inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tropical Storm Isaac reduced the first day’s program for the Republican National Convention down to a 30-second introduction.

But there was still a full day of free-speech activity on the streets of Tampa. The storm may have diminished the size of the protests – busses dropping off out-of-town protesters from across the state and region wouldn’t drive into a tropical storm warning zone – there were nevertheless hundreds of protesters on the streets braving the wet to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Tampa Protesters: "Welcome to Tampa"After a quick morning conference call with our state headquarters in Miami, we headed out to our mobile resource center along the official parade route for the “March on the RNC,” a large rally and march scheduled for midday. Although their numbers were less than expected (event organizers had expected as many as 5,000, but they ended up with somewhere around 700-800), the crowd was nevertheless very vocal and welcoming of the ACLU of Florida and took hundreds of copies of our First Amendment Toolkit.

When the march arrived at the public viewing area, where police far outnumbered the protesters, a small group led an un-permitted march back up along the parade route. Police initially held them back, but ultimately relented and let them head back along the route which they came.

Following the March on the RNC, our staff headed up to “Romneyville,” delivering our toolkit to religious and medical policy groups we encountered on the way. Romneyville is the “Occupy”-style encampment on the north end of downtown. They were planning an unpermitted march through downtown, and we distributed materials to the attendees and answered questions about protesters’ rights before the march started.

Though our staff left before the march got underway, we heard from people who were present that the police in riot gear allowed them to march unpermitted for a few blocks and then ultimately stopped them. Protesters sat down locking arms, preparing for arrests, but a Tampa police official kneeled down and spoke with demonstrators at the front, explaining that the sidewalks were open. The crowd dispersed with no arrests.

Tampa Bicycle Police at the RNCMonday evening, I was given press credentials to go inside the convention center to talk to reporters about protesters’ rights and security. If the police presence around the protest areas was large, it was nothing like the security apparatus around the convention center and arena.

But in spite of the sheer numbers of police, the relationship of mutual respect that police and city officials worked to sustain with protest groups throughout the planning process and at our First Amendment forums seems to have held up during the first day of the convention. And as of Monday, there were only two arrests in Tampa related to the RNC.

But the ACLU has seen seemingly neutral security laws spiral out of control at these conventions in years past, which is why we started a national petition to the mayors of Tampa and Charlotte asking them to protect free speech. We’ll continue to make sure that people’s free speech rights are being respected and protected and celebrate free speech at the RNC.

(Note: Images or descriptions of protests during the Republican National Convention do not represent an ACLU of Florida endorsement of the individual, organization or message. The ACLU of Florida is in Tampa to promote the First Amendment rights of all groups.)

ACLU of Florida at the RNC – August 28: The Calm Before the Storm

Baylor Johnson
Online Advocacy Coordinator, ACLU of Florida

Today was my first full day in Tampa for the Republican National Convention, but the time I spent with other ACLU staff distributing our First Amendment Toolkit to coalition groups and organizing volunteers was hardly the first day that I or the rest of the ACLU of Florida has been working on the RNC. In the past year, we’ve had forums with city and police officials and First Amendment experts (note: by watching video of the First Amendment Forum, Google and Youtube will put a permanent cookie on your computer), we’ve developed resources for protesters – we’ve worked hard to make sure that everyone’s rights are respected and protected during the convention. This weekend  marks the transition from that year-long preparation phase to the work of promoting and celebrating free speech on the streets of Tampa.

ACLU of Florida resource center vehicle at the RNCYesterday, just before the roads around the arena were closed for the week, our staff placed a rented vehicle full of ACLU materials and “Know Your Rights” resources at a spot along the official parade route to serve as our resource center inside the event zone.

Our spot, just four blocks from the arena, puts us right in the middle of where many protests will take place, so we can serve as a convenient resource for people seeking information about their rights as protesters, what some of the limitations are on protests during the RNC and what to do if stopped by police throughout the week.

For now though, we wait. Tropical storm Isaac has thrown a curveball at everyone whose work involves the RNC, from the convention planners, to city officials, to protest groups and organizations like the ACLU of Florida who work to protect their rights. The first day of the official convention schedule has been reduced to a quick pro forma meeting, and some of the other events planned for Monday around the convention have been cancelled or postponed.

So after spending our day with one eye on our preparations and one eye on the weather reports, we’ve made the decision to cancel volunteer activities tomorrow, August 28th, for safety and practicality reasons.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t still busy. ACLU of Florida Field Coordinator Nikki Fisher and I are spending our evening contacting volunteers, while others are distributing our First Amendment Toolkit at events in Tampa and St. Pete, including at a big rally at Tropicana Field. And our board president, Mike Pheneger, worked with one group today to secure their permit to do a major art installation in downtown Tampa. And tomorrow we will all

Tomorrow, Isaac will have its impact on Tampa, and on Tuesday, the protests and the convention ramp back up to their previously-expected intensity. And so today, as we prepare for the intensity of the coming days, we’re both literally and figuratively in the calm before the storm.

(Note: Images or descriptions of protests during the Republican National Convention do not represent an ACLU of Florida endorsement of the individual, organization or message. The ACLU of Florida is in Tampa to promote the First Amendment rights of all groups.)

Volunteers Needed: Join Us in Defense of Free Speech at the RNC

Baylor Johnson
Online Advocacy Coordinator, ACLU of Florida

First Amendment

We’ve been preparing ourselves and our communities for months, and now it’s finally here. In just over a week, the eyes of the world will be on Florida when the 2012 Republican National Convention comes to Tampa.

Help us protect First Amendment rights on the streets of Tampa by volunteering with the ACLU of Florida.

With the help of ACLU supporters like you, we’ve held town halls, forums and webinars, we’ve created and distributed materials about First Amendment rights, and we’ve met with city and law enforcement leaders to make sure that people’s rights are being protected, all in preparation for what’s happening in our state in a few short days. Now is your chance to help us make sure that all of that work pays off.

While the world focuses on what’s happening inside the arena, there will be thousands of people outside attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights while navigating rules, restrictions and a major law enforcement presence. We need volunteers to help with a public education campaign to let demonstrators, journalists, activists and even local citizens know about their rights and the role of the ACLU in protecting those rights.

Sign up today to volunteer during the RNC and be a part of First Amendment history.

The RNC is coming. Is the Bill of Rights Ready?

Baylor Johnson
Online Advocacy Coordinator, ACLU of Florida

First AmendmentAt the end of this month, thousands of protesters, journalists, and political activists will descend on the Tampa Bay area for the 2012 Republican National Convention. And with their arrival comes increased police presence, new local laws, and millions of dollars in surveillance and law enforcement equipment, all of which will change the way citizens in the area live their lives and understand their rights.

Join us on Tuesday, August 7, from 6 to 8 p.m. for 2012 RNC in Tampa: What You Need to Know, a free forum on what the RNC means for you and what you can do to protect your rights. We’ll discuss the rights of demonstrators and photographers, the permitting process and other rules and restrictions passed for the event, and take questions from the attendees on how you can stand up for your rights.

The event will feature leaders from the ACLU of Florida; First Amendment experts Dr. Bruce Friesen from the University of Tampa Human Rights Think Tank, and Prof. Louis Virelli of Stetson University College of Law; and civic leaders such as Public Defender Julianne Holt, Tampa City Attorney James Shimberg, and Tampa Police Department Assistant Chief John Bennett.

The event is co-sponsored by the University of Tampa and is free and open to the public. To RSVP or if you have any additional questions or comments, please contact our Mid-Florida Regional Director Joyce Hamilton Henry at

Invite your friends, family, and anyone else who will be impacted by the RNC. We look forward to seeing you at the forum!

13,000 Rights Restoration Letters Gathering Dust in Tallahassee

Voting RightsThis week, we made a bombshell discovery in our work defending the right to vote in Florida against voter suppression. A public records request we filed with the Florida Parole Commission has uncovered 17,604 Restoration of Civil Rights (RCR) certificates that were returned to the Parole Commission as “undeliverable.”

That means over 17,000 formerly-incarcerated Floridians have had their voting and civil rights restored but haven’t received official notice from the state. After further investigation, we found that about 77% of the citizens who had the right to vote but haven’t received their notices – 13,517 Florida citizens – haven’t registered to vote yet, and may not even know that they have the right to vote at all.

The ACLU is encouraging Florida citizens who applied to have their rights restored but who have not received a response from the state to either:

  • call the Florida Parole Commission at 1-800-435-8286;
  • visit the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) website at, and click “How to Restore Rights” to learn about checking your status.
  • or contact your local county Supervisor of Elections office for assistance in checking your status and determining whether you are eligible to vote.

It should be no surprise that Governor Scott, who rolled back the rights restoration reforms of his predecessor, hasn’t done more to help the Parole Commission contact these citizens about their voting rights. As ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon put it, “The contrast between the baseless claims that Governor Scott has made about voter fraud and the lengths to which he has gone to make voting more difficult, and the inattention to the thousands of voting rights restoration certifications gathering dust in the capitol could not be sharper.”

Read our press release to learn more about this week’s discovery, Florida’s system of lifetime disfranchisement for former felons, and the work the ACLU is doing to reform it.

“Viewpoint” Debate: Vote No on Amendment 8

Baylor Johnson
Online Advocacy Coordinator, ACLU of Florida

With November’s election fast approaching, more and more Floridians are becoming aware of the potential dangers presented by the misleading-titled “Religious Freedom Amendment” on the ballot, proposed Amendment 8, which would repeal a century-old protection in the Florida religion on government involvement in religious activities.

This week “Viewpoint,” WPBT’s show on religion and public affairs, featured a debate with Rev. Canon Wesley Northrup, dean of the Honors College at Florida International University, and former State Senator Dan Gelber arguing against the Amendment, and the Rev. Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami and Mike Hill of Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination arguing in its favor.

The debate addresses some of the myths surrounding the intention of the Amendment (including that it seeks to end anti-Catholic bias, a myth which we issued a report last year dispelling), and reveals the dangers to religious liberty which are presented by having government spend taxpayer dollars on religious activities.

Watch the video of the full debate.

ACLU and Florida Immigrant Coalition host statewide Immigration Enforcement Summit – June 23, 2012 – University of Central Florida, Orlando

By Ron Bilbao, Advocacy Coordinator/Legislative Associate. ACLU of Florida.

Over 100 participants gathered at the University of Central Florida’s School of Business Administration on Saturday, June 23rd to get down to business on how to deal with the real problem with immigration in Florida these days – enforcement. On the eve of the Supreme Court’s decision on Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 law, advocates from seventeen different counties throughout Florida joined together to prepare for the worst. Despite Florida not being one of the six states with Arizona-style anti-immigrant laws in place, all sixty-seven counties have agreements with the federal government to implement the nefarious “Secure Communities” program which, among other things, gives local police authority to check the immigration status of anyone who is detained for any offense. The result has been increased mistrust between communities of color and local police, in many cases, crimes going unreported for fear of retribution and potential deportation leading to the separation of families and a constant fear throughout Hispanic neighborhoods. We don’t need a Florida-style SB 1070 law, we are already feeling the terrorizing effects of its discriminatory enforcement.

The summit brought together national and local speakers to discuss the impact of the Supreme Court decision on Florida, how to respond, and most importantly how to fight back against enforcement right now in our local communities. Andre Segura, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project in New York kicked off the day with a keynote discussing the questions before the Court in Arizona v. United States to be decided the following Monday, and how that ruling could affect Florida now and in the near future. An all-star panel followed the keynote where national and regional leaders discussed how they are fighting back against racial profiling and enforcement practices in their respective areas. Panelists included Sian ófaoláin of Rights Working Group that is organizing states to pass anti-racial profiling legislation; Héctor Cruz from WeCount! who is leading a campaign to take local control over ICE holds; Mayron Payes of the Center for Community Change describing his work on family commissions; and Paola Everett of the ACLU of Florida’s Tampa office detailing their documentation and data-collecting study on racial profiling in three Florida counties. The panel was moderated by Dr. Joyce Hamilton-Henry, director of the mid-Florida regional office of the ACLU of Florida.

A series of workshops followed which aimed at training participants in the details of fighting back against enforcement locally. From Know Your Rights 101, to Documenting Racial Profiling, to Legal Defense and Rapid Response, to Voter Engagement. The trainings were thorough and led by experts in the field. After the workshops, participants broke into groups by regions and set specific goals by which to implement the work they trained for in the workshops. The summit closed with a group report-back and some inspiring words from Maria Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition and Board Member of the ACLU of Florida.

Watch a video of the summit: here

See photos from the summit: here 

Watch media response to the summit: WESH and FOX

Download materials from the summit:

July 10 Webinar on the RNC in Tampa

First Amendment BullhornBaylor Johnson
Online Advocacy Coordinator, ACLU of Florida

In just over two months, our state will be at the center of global attention, as thousands of journalists, political activists, and protesters descend on Tampa for the 2012 Republican National Convention. How will policies and laws put into place for the Convention impact the rights of the reporters, demonstrators, and the citizens of Florida? And what can we do to ensure that our First Amendment rights and other freedoms are being upheld?

Join us online on Tuesday, July 10 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. for a free know-your-rights webinar, 2012 RNC in Tampa: What You Need to Know. We’ll discuss the rights of demonstrators and photographers, the permitting process and other rules and restrictions passed for the event, and take questions from the webinar attendees on how you can stand up for your rights.

The webinar will feature speakers from the ACLU of Florida, the Public Defender’s Office, as well as Tampa City Attorney James Shimberg, and Tampa Police Department Chief Jane Castor and Assistant Chief John Bennett.

Register for the webinar today to reserve your spot. You will receive an email with log-in information after you have registered. For additional questions or comments, contact our Mid-Florida Regional Director Joyce Hamilton Henry at

UPDATE 7/10: Excitement for the webinar has exceeded our expectations! So many people have registered to learn to protect their rights that we may exceed the capacity for the webinar. If you have registered, try to log in early to ensure your spot in the webinar. If the webinar is full when you attempt to log in, keep trying, or follow us on Twitter as we livetweet the event at @ACLUFL, and download the PowerPoint (approx. 3MB) here.

ACLU to Florida: Your voter purge “is in violation” of the law

News: ACLU to Florida: Your voter purge “is in violation” of the law
Communications Department

The ACLU and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law wrote to the Florida Secretary of State today to inform the state that the ongoing effort to remove legal, registered voters from the voting rolls is “in violation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993…”

The letter is here.

Florida’s effort to kick people off its voter registration rolls has ensared hundreds of citizens who are legally eligible to vote.

Yesterday, the United States Departement of Justice wrote to Florida similarly expressing concerns about the voter purge. The DOJ letter is here.