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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 29, 2012 7 years ago

My View: Columnist misfires on ACLU involvement

by: Andrea Flynn Mogensen

Rod Thomson’s recent column, “Pro-homeless lobby is a problem,” misfires on all cylinders.

First, the column incorrectly characterizes recent efforts by the ACLU as lobbying for the homeless. To clarify, the ACLU objected to all individuals being trespassed from public sidewalks without regard to residential status.

The city attorney wisely imposed a moratorium to avoid costly litigation that would have left taxpayers picking up the bill for the police department’s unconstitutional trespass program.

Rather than condemn a clearly unlawful practice, the column suggests it’s problematic to advocate for the protection of a civil liberty the Supreme Court has said is a “fundamental” right belonging to all citizens. Each member of our community has an equal constitutional interest in using city property that is open to the public.To be clear, the ACLU advocated for the rule of law to be applied fairly and uniformly to all citizens, hardly an objectionable platform.

The column was also wrong to suggest that the ACLU argued for the right of the homeless to disturb diners at outdoor restaurant tables. Mr. Thomson obtained a copy of the ACLU’s letter urging that the city cease the illegal trespass program and was aware that there was no such advocacy. These mischaracterizations use invective, exaggeration and dehumanizing labels (“homeless”) to mislead the reader to a wrong conclusion.

The ACLU does not advocate that individuals have the right to urinate in public or violate any laws of civil disobedience.

Although it is curious for a newspaper column to be so quick to heave the First Amendment into the trash, what’s more disturbing is its inherent hypocrisy. The column is particularly full of rancor over the homeless allegedly urinating in the park, but that same outrage is not displayed when an affluent condo dweller’s pet discharges effluent in the same location?

It is difficult to understand the logic behind overlooking a pet that is allowed to publicly release in the park but, for the downtrodden with no high-rise condo, it’s a crime requiring incarceration.

Have we forgotten that the very core of the First Amendment is the concept of the “marketplace of ideas” where all messages compete to be heard? It does not tolerate only certain messages from certain individuals and exclude all others by referring to them with dehumanizing labels.

This country was founded on the notion that the streets and sidewalks are the medium upon which the marketplace of ideas is communicated. Under Mr. Thomson’s view, Paul Revere should have been arrested for trespass and disturbing the peace by riding through the countryside exhorting “the British are coming, the British are coming.”

The ACLU does not advocate for a particular message to be heard in the marketplace of ideas. Rather, our organization stands ready to defend the important principle that all messages are entitled to be heard on a level playing field.

As to the unwarranted claim that the ACLU is seeking publicity rather than a solution to homelessness, the column omits the fact that nine months ago our Legal Panel Chair urged county officials to comply with a state law provision mandating that Ed Smith Stadium be used as a homeless shelter when not in use.

It is difficult to imagine that a trespass program would be considered a solution to mental-health problems and extreme poverty. Mr. Thomson’s “solution” is merely a solution serving those in a particular neighborhood but fails to address the core problems at issue, something which the Ed Smith Stadium solution would clearly address.

Unfortunately, the request to use the stadium as a homeless shelter has fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps Mr. Thomson would do more to aid the homeless problem by calling out the public officials who fail to follow state law requiring the stadium to be used as a shelter.

Our elected leaders are not following the law. Now that’s a problem.

Andrea Flynn Mogensen is an attorney and vice president of the Sarasota-Manatee-Desoto Chapter of the ACLU of Florida Inc.

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