Monday, October 19, 2009

The boat-rocker

Nineteen years ago tomorrow, in a Ft. Lauderdale courtroom, jury foreman David Garsow stood up and recited the decision of his fellow jury members in the case of the State of Florida vs. Luther Campbell: "Not guilty."

Rick Bragg of the St. Petersburg Times wrote:
"The lead defense attorney said the First Amendment was a wall built to protect people like Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew. Prosecutors claimed the wall hid something vile and obscene.

"Either way, it's a wall still standing.

"A Broward County jury Saturday ruled that the nasty-talking rap group was innocent of violating obscenity laws. It was a landmark case that coupled freedom of speech with a rap group known for lyrics that degrade women and tout violent sex.

"The jury of four women and two men came back with the verdict of not guilty after just two hours of deliberations. Crew leader Campbell jumped to his feet and raised his fist in the air. The tiny, crowded courtroom erupted in cheers. One woman said ""Thank you Jesus.'' Members of his family started to cry."
I was the pool photographer in the courtroom that day.

But at the time, the importance of the verdict was the last thing on my mind.

I was more concerned about getting the exposure right in the dingy, cramped courtroom lit only by weak fluorescent lights.

Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro had hoped to make an example of Luther Campbell and his foul-mouthed crew.

But he miscalculated.

Campbell's attorney was soft-spoken but tough-as-nails Nova University law professor Bruce Rogow, who as a young civil rights lawyer in the South in the sixties, confronted a group of angry whites after police officers refused to intervene.

Fighting injustice is in Rogow's DNA.

"I saw such hate, and I knew for the first time what it was like to rock [the] boat," Rogow told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1988.

Rogow spoke with me today by phone from his Ft. Lauderdale office and recalled his reaction when he first learned that Campbell was being charged with violating Broward's obscenity laws.

"I was amused," says Rogow. "I didn't get angry because I knew I could win [the case]."

Rogow told me that the first amendment is still "respected."

But it's his words to the jury 19 years ago that still stick in my mind.

Rick Bragg wrote them down for his St. Petersburg Times story:
"The First Amendment does protect speech, even nasty speech, even four-letter words," Rogow said. "The purpose of the Constitution is to keep the state from not liking something and putting people in jail.

"It's not a matter of taste. If you don't like it, you don't have to go to their concerts. But to deny those people who want to do it is to deny their freedom of speech. That's not what this country is about."

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