Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. November 2, 2021.

Editorial: UF’s attack on academic freedom exposes a partisan agenda

The University of Florida has put the interests of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the chairman of its board of trustees above the values of an institution dedicated to free inquiry, and it has been desperately trying to cram toothpaste back into a tube ever since.

Three UF political science professors, all experts on voting, especially in Florida, had been hired by voting rights organizations suing the DeSantis administration over a new state law (SB 90) that includes new restrictions on drop boxes, voting by mail and other Republican-sponsored measures designed to make it harder to vote in Florida.

Political science department chairman Daniel Smith and colleague Michael McDonald both have high social media profiles, and both have aggravated past Republican administrations over restricting access to voting, as when Smith testified in a case that ended an unconstitutional ban on early voting on university campuses.

Smith has also testified on the state’s side, as when he provided written testimony in a lawsuit for the Secretary of State in 2010. They are, in other words, experts, not partisans, and they are usually paid for their work — work they have done many times before in lawsuits for and against the state.

And yet the University of Florida banned Smith, McDonald and Sharon Austin from providing expert testimony regarding a voting law that the governor signed in a private ceremony in West Palm Beach to which only Fox News and a crowd of DeSantis supporters were invited.

Now, facing an enormous backlash, including a forceful letter from all 10 of Florida’s Democratic members of Congress and an investigation by its accrediting body, UF has suddenly, hastily explained that it has no problem with the professors testifying in the case — as long as they are not paid. Gators may be orange and blue, but Florida’s flagship university has an enormous black eye from which it won’t soon recover.

“It is important to note that the university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom of professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin,” the university said in a statement. “Rather, the university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.”

This is a pathetic attempt at face-saving given that UF’s initial email to the professors denying them the ability to testify never once referred to payment. The brief statement denying the professors the ability to testify, posted to Twitter by McDonald, read in its entirety:

“UF will deny its employees’ requests to engage in outside activities when it determines the activities are adverse to its interests. As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.”

Appalling.

See the slippery slope in this. There are laws throughout the history of this country and this state that, in retrospect, were horrific abuses of human rights. How is it in the university’s best interests to prevent academic experts from speaking out, whether against this restrictive voting law or anything else? In fact, UF professors being involved in major litigation benefits the university by raising its profile.

And what is it that makes this activity “adverse to UF’s interests” anyway? The obvious assumption is that the university is a public institution, funded with our tax money as dispersed by a Legislature all too willing to do the governor’s dirty work, even if that means slashing funding for the university.

We don’t expect much to come of either the browbeating by members of Congress or the investigation by the accrediting agency. Such investigations rarely result in sanctions. But all this negative attention will likely affect the vaunted “No. 5 public school in the country” title from U.S. News and World Report that the university proudly boasted of recently.

That ranking already looked like it might take a hit after the USA Today Network found emails revealing that UF Board of Trustees Chairman Morteza “Mori” Hosseini had a hand in fast-tracking anti-vax, anti-mask crank Dr. Joseph Ladapo for a position at the university as a springboard to his job as Florida surgeon general.

Although appointed to the board by former Gov. Rick Scott, Hosseini was reappointed by DeSantis, is a Republican mega-donor, served as an advisor to the DeSantis campaign and previously offered a jet he owns to DeSantis’ wife to attend a fundraiser.

Perhaps the investigation by UF’s accreditor, or a task force formed by UF President Kent Fuchs to look into the matter, may find that Hosseini played a role in this idiocy as well. Hosseini has already embarrassed the state’s premier university with his ham-fisted shoving of Ladapo into a job at the university to grease the doctor’s move to a high-level state job. If the investigations now swirling over this latest affair show that Hosseini had a hand in it, he must be removed from the board of trustees by any legal means possible before he embarrasses the university again. It’s clear he puts loyalty to the governor above the mission of the school.

Why wouldn’t he? This is the inevitable result of a system where seats on state university trustee boards are political chits to be auctioned off to those who write big campaign checks or have statewide political connections. Politics has always played an outsize role in Florida’s higher education system, but it’s more brazenly political than ever because of changes made two decades ago that abolished the widely respected Board of Regents.

The short-term fix in this case may be to remove a nakedly partisan trustee who puts his politics above his position. The long-term fix would be to abolish the Board of Governors that runs the university system, revive the Board of Regents, and make sure that, in the future, the top qualification to run a state university or even the entire state university system isn’t how many zeros you can fit on a check.

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Tampa Bay Times. November 2, 2021.

Editorial: Redrawing Florida’s legislative districts should be done in public

Florida’s public records laws shield part of the important process from public scrutiny.

There are few things voters have a greater vested interest in than legislative districts. Those lines and boundaries have a profound impact on political parties gaining and keeping power, candidates at all levels getting a fair shot and overall election fairness. So there’s ample reason the maps and documents related to the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing legislative boundaries should be open under Florida’s public records law. Lawmakers should kill the current exemption that shields those records from public scrutiny.

Democrats controlled the Legislature way back in 1993 when the public records exemption was carved out. Voters had recently approved a state constitutional amendment expanding Florida’s public records law. But lawmakers also got to write their own rules and exemptions to that law. They chose to exempt “the documents that were central to their political power — those related to redistricting,” Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas reported recently.

Make no mistake: Shielding the redistricting process only benefits people in power. When they can keep their schemes and motivations secret, they can protect their own continued dominance. The exemption applies to “a draft, and a request for a draft, of reapportionment plan or redistricting plan and an amendment thereto. Any supporting documents associated with such plan or amendment until a bill implementing the plan, or the amendment, is filed.”

Sounds dry, but fast forward to 2010 after Republicans had risen to power. Only because of a legal challenge to the redistricting process that year were lawmakers forced to turn over their records — which revealed they had intentionally violated the state’s anti-gerrymandering law by using maps drawn by Republican political consultants as blueprints for the final maps drawn by lawmakers. No wonder they wanted to keep them private. Those maps were ultimately thrown out by a judge and redrawn — an unlikely outcome if the records had never become public.

Florida’s Constitution now explicitly prohibits political gerrymandering, or drawing district lines that benefit particular lawmakers or their party. The boundaries are required to protect minority voters — for example, by not running a boundary through an African-American neighborhood thus dividing and diluting those votes — and create districts that are compact, contiguous, equal in population and follow city or county lines where feasible.

With redistricting on the docket again this year, an effort by two lawmakers to bring more sunshine to the process is well-timed. Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, and Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, have filed companion bills (SB 530 and HB 6053) that would simply remove the exemption. Their reasoning makes too much sense. ”If you’re going to have full access, there shouldn’t be this exemption,” said Geller. Added Taddeo: “We should not have any exemptions for the process to be truly trusted.”

Lawmakers from both parties have given voters plenty of evidence why they can’t be trusted with this fundamental duty. The state’s fair districts requirements, thankfully, now force lawmakers to draw sensible legislative boundaries without regard for their own political interests. Ending the public records exemption would make them prove it.

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Palm Beach Post. October 29, 2021.

Editorial: Police officers should also ‘serve and protect’ from COVID

Palm Beach County police, firefighters and other frontline heroes don’t need to be reminded of the dangers of COVID-19; They see it every day among their own ranks.

And yet, an unknown but sizeable percentage of them still hesitate, a year-and-a-half into this pandemic, to take the easiest and most logical measures to keep themselves and the public they serve safer by wearing masks and getting inoculated.

Time’s up. Billions of people have had a COVID-19 shot. Five-year olds are about to get inoculated. You should, too.

West Palm Beach Deputy Police Chief Rick Morris — who’s had two shots and a booster — blames the hesitation on conflicting internet communications on the efficacy of the vaccinations. “Lies on both sides,” is how John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association and Florida PBA, puts it, though he encourages members to get the shots, too.

West Palm Beach Fire Chief Diana Matty says firefighters’ explanations for holding back range from politics to resistance to having freedoms curtailed, to just not wanting to take any drug they consider experimental. So firmly and angrily are these positions held, so adamant are some about not wanting to do what others tell them to do — even in fire stations, where people live on top of one another 24 hours a day — that many avoid bringing up the issue for fear of starting a fight, she says.

To be sure, the pandemic was politicized from the start. If the former president who called COVID “The China Virus” consulted history books, he might have been surprised to learn that the Chinese are believed to have invented inoculation, more than 1,000 years ago. Those who fear vaccination should know it has been employed in the United States since 1796, when first used to battle smallpox.

Nearly 7 billion COVID-19 shots have been administered worldwide. The vaccines, developed rapidly but with virtually no ill effects we know of, were approved under the intense scrutiny of many of the world’s best medical minds.

No, the science is not certain. It rarely is. But what is certain is that more than 45 million cases have been recorded in the U.S. and many of the 740,000 dead (59,000 in Florida) would have been spared had they been inoculated.

We mourn the loss of West Palm Beach police officers Robert Williams and Anthony Testa, neither of whom was inoculated, their department said. Testa was just 36 and left behind a wife and a 4-year-old son, among other family members. Williams, 47, served the department for 20 years and left behind a wife and sons.

A survey several months ago of Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputies, corrections officers and civilian staff indicated that roughly 60% were vaccinated. That would confirm anecdotal information, from departments around the county, that many have not been.

As Florida Today reported Oct. 16, COVID-19 emerged over the last 18 months as the biggest killer of police in Florida and the U.S. “It has replaced traffic accidents and gunshot wounds as the leading cause of death among law enforcement agents...,” the newspaper reported.

Of 374 who died nationwide, 245, or 66%, died of COVID-19, including 15 police officers from Florida.

We don’t know what internet sources are causing confusion among our county’s first responders but the names engraved on the walls of the American Police Hall of Fame & Museum in Titusville, and the lives they represent, are as real as it gets. “Lies on both sides” doesn’t ring true. Not even close.

Union leader Kazanjian says the PBA encourages members to get the COVID inoculation, as he did nine months ago. “I didn’t die or lose an arm,” he says.

But at the same time, he and the police union defend officers’ decision not to be vaccinated as a “personal choice”.

That’s just wrong. Dangerously wrong.

Credible medical sources have by now made clear that while vaccines and masks aren’t perfect, they substantially reduce the chance of catching and spreading, or dying from COVID-19. Those who do have a “breakthrough” case despite having been inoculated, likely will experience far weaker symptoms than had they not had the shots.

Several hundred children have died of COVID, so it’s great news that children soon will share the protection that vaccines afford.

It’s especially important that public employees protect the public, by protecting themselves. It’s time for the holdouts in our police and fire departments to step up.

You’ve devoted your lives to saving lives. So, do that.

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Orlando Sentinel. October 27, 2021.

Editorial: At long last, final justice is near for the railroaded Groveland Four

The state attorney for Lake County took a quiet but critical step this week toward finally and fully vindicating the four Black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949.

William Gladson is asking a court to dismiss the indictments and judgments against Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin, the young Black men who got railroaded by a corrupt justice system — aided and abetted by the community and media — more than 70 years ago.

The Legislature apologized in 2017 and the governor and Cabinet pardoned the men in 2019. But a pardon is forgiveness for a crime committed, not a finding that the crime didn’t occur. That’s what Gladson is setting into motion — a long overdue legal determination that the Groveland Four were falsely accused from the very start. That they were innocent.

“Even a casual review of the record reveals that these four men were deprived of the fundamental due process rights that are guaranteed to all Americans,” Gladson wrote in the motion filed on Monday. “Given these facts today, no fair-minded prosecutor would even consider filing these charges and no reasonable jury would convict.

“The evidence strongly suggests that the sheriff, the judge, and the prosecutor all but ensured guilty verdicts in this case. These officials, disguised as keepers of the peace and masquerading as ministers of justice, disregarded their oaths, and set in motion a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families, and a community,” Gladson wrote. “I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system, nor do I ever expect I will again.”

Good to see that Gladson didn’t pull his punches. There’s been enough of that over the years.

The final act of this tragedy has been a long time coming. After the Legislature’s 2017 apology, then Attorney General Pam Bondi asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in December 2018 to review the case with the idea of eventually clearing the men’s names.

The Gladson motion included some shocking and infuriating developments from that review, including:

— An FDLE interview with Broward Hunter, the grandson of the state attorney who prosecuted the case, revealed that the prosecutor and the judge knew there had been no rape by the time Walter Irvin was tried a second time, and convicted.

— FDLE agents unearthed evidence from Irvin’s second trial that was thought to be lost, including a pair of his pants shown to the jury because they had “smears” on them. At the time, the pants weren’t tested to determine if those smears were semen to indicate a rape had occurred. Prosecutors just showed the jury the pants and left them to wonder. The FDLE had the pants tested in September and no trace of semen was detected. “The significance of this finding cannot be overstated,” Gladson wrote.

— The state’s primary law enforcement witness, a Lake County deputy, appears to have created a bogus plaster cast of Irvin’s shoe, which he claimed had been taken at the scene. Turns out the deputy made phony plaster impressions for a trial years later where two other Black men were accused of raping a white woman.

Add those to the already long and well documented list of judicial injustices inflicted on the four men, made worse by the atrocious early media coverage, including that of the Orlando Sentinel. It may have been the worst moment in this paper’s long history.

The case has been assigned to Administrative Judge Heidi Davis, who will rule to either grant or deny Gladson’s motion. We hope she’ll grant it, and soon.

The Groveland Four have all passed away, two of them shot to death by the authorities. But their families and the community still carry the wounds from this old wrong. It will only heal when justice is finally done.

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Miami Herald. November 2, 2021.

Editorial: Miami Dolphins need a lesson in denouncing bad behavior more than they need Deshaun Watson

This is Miami. We can’t help rooting for the Dolphins, even if we roll our eyes when we do. But the talk about the Dolphins trading for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is a step too far, even for us. No talent upgrade for this team is worth the kind of controversy Watson brings, at least right now.

The 26-year-old star — and he is one — is facing a criminal investigation and 22 civil lawsuits alleging a pattern of lewd behavior with women hired to provide personal services, such as massages. The FBI has gotten involved, though that may be aimed at one of the accusers and an extortion claim.

It’s a mess, and the Dolphins should steer clear. Not just for the team, but for the broader message they are sending.

Yes, this is professional football. Watson is one of the best in the league at his job, and the money at stake is huge. (Watson signed a four-year contract extension last year worth almost $111 million.) And that means much of the discussion has focused on questions of sports strategy — what about the current quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa? — rather than the kinds of values the NFL is promoting here.

Plus, we know that if Miami landed him, most fans would cast aside their concerns the minute he starts putting touchdowns on the scoreboard.

NOT JUST A PR PROBLEM

But the allegations against Watson are no minor blow-up, something that can be swept away with a good PR person and a bunch of wins. The Miami Dolphins — and the NFL — are supposed to be trying to clean up their images. Yet there are reports that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has approved the trade with one huge sticking point: He wants Watson’s legal problems cleaned up before it is executed. But unless the court system suddenly shifts into warp speed, there’s no way those legal problems will be addressed before the NFL trading deadline on Tuesday. Ross may just be trying to offer a glimmer of hope to fans — while guaranteeing the trade can’t happen — but why do we even have to discuss this?

No team should be willing to bring on a player with so many unresolved and serious issues. Ross had a chance to say that at the NFL owners meeting earlier this week, but he didn’t. He told the reporters trying to ask him questions: “I know what it’s about, and I’m not dealing with it.”

Football, and sports in general, needs to deal with “it” — a culture that would much rather ignore persistent sex and gender issues than deal with them.

What does it say that hockey has also had to face allegations that current Florida Panthers coach Joel Quenneville knew about the Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse case when he was head coach there? (This, as the Panthers enter the season with the best start in their history.) A lawsuit was filed in May alleging that a former video coach had molested two players in 2010. By June, the Blackhawks had ordered up an independent investigation, and this week, the team released the findings. Two top team members resigned followed by Quenneville on Thursday. Though the allegations go back a decade, hockey is dealing with this issue pretty quickly.

WASHINGTON INVESTIGATION

The NFL? Not so much. That 10-month investigation into the Washington Football Team amid allegations of a hostile workplace, bullying and harassment — and a sexual assault claim against the owner — resulted in nothing but a statement from the NFL concluding that the team had operated in an unprofessional manner and ignored rampant bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment. No report has been released on the team’s toxic culture, and there’s been no real effort at transparency.

It’s like the #MeToo movement never happened.

The Dolphins shouldn’t even be considering adding a player to their roster like Watson until these allegations are fully dealt with — and maybe not even then, either. But this is bigger than one troubled quarterback. The NFL and other sports leagues need to think about the messages are they sending to sexual-assault victims, women and young kids who see players as role models.

Should teams and athletes be held to account like the rest of us? Or do money and talent turn even the most serious of problems into nothing more than a PR problem?

We know what the NFL would say — predictably.

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