The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (also known as the Johns Committee) was established by the Florida Legislature in 1956, during the era of the Second Red Scare and the Lavender Scare. Like the more famous anti-Communist investigative committees of the McCarthy period in the United States Congress, the Florida committee undertook a wide-ranging investigation of potentially subversive activities by academics, civil rights groups, and suspected communist organizations, and also attempted to eliminate Homosexuals from state government and public education.
Commonly referred to as the Johns Committee after its first chairman, state senator and former governor Charley Eugene Johns, its broadly worded mandate from the Legislature was to
investigate all organizations whose principles or activities include a course of conduct on the part of any person or group which could constitute violence, or a violation of the laws of the state, or would be inimical to the well being and orderly pursuit of their personal and business activities by the majority of the citizens of this state.
The Florida Legislature in the 1950s and later was controlled by the very conservative "'Pork Choppers,' rural legislators determined to curb the influence of the 'Lamb Choppers,' legislators representing more progressive city folk." Former governor Johns was a key figure among the twenty "Pork Choppers" from rural North Florida in the state senate, who effectively dominated the workings of state government.
One of the Johns Committee's first tasks was to investigate and reprimand faculty and staff at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically black college, for supporting the Tallahassee Bus Boycott of 1956–1957. The committee sought to prove communist links to the NAACP, but were rebuffed when the NAACP got a ruling from the United States Supreme Court denying the Johns Committee access to their membership lists. The committee also investigated the activities of other politically active organizations, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Ku Klux Klan, as well as pro-Castro and anti-Castro groups.
Assault on homosexuality
In 1961, the Legislature directed the Johns Committee to broaden its investigations to include homosexuals and the "extent of [their] infiltration into agencies supported by state funds," particularly at state colleges and universities such as the University of Florida, Florida State University, and the University of South Florida. Having the power to subpoena witnesses, take sworn testimony, and employ secret informants, the committee spread terror among the closeted lesbian and gay population in state colleges, often using uniformed policemen to pull students and professors out of classes for interrogation. All homosexual acts were crimes under Florida law at that time and remained so until the United States Supreme Court's Lawrence v. Texas ruling in 2003. Admission of homosexuality constituted moral turpitude and was grounds for firing or expulsion from college.
However, the Johns Committee had already begun interrogating suspected homosexuals among students and faculty on Florida campuses before the Legislature gave specific authorization for it. One victim, University of Florida honors graduate Art Coppleston, described the experience of interrogation this way:
I arrived at the University of Florida on my 25th birthday in September 1957. Having completed four years in the Air Force, I was anxious to move ahead quickly with my education, and get on to a working career. …I was called in to be interrogated three or four times during the next two years. Each time, it was the same setting, and the same set of questions. Each time I was unceremoniously marched out of class, in front of the instructor and all my classmates, by a uniformed policeman. Once this occurred during a final exam in accounting. …At each interrogation, I refused to tell them anything. Each time I was amazed that, while I was truly terrified by their tactics and their threats, I was able to stonewall their questions and refuse to give them the answers they were so desperate for. I came to realize that they, as a group, were really a very dumb bunch of redneck, illiterate people, clumsily wielding a vast amount of power over others.
The investigations ruined many lives and careers. For example, in March 1959, the chairman of the University of Florida geography department, Professor Sigmund Diettrich, a married man, attempted suicide after being interrogated by the committee's agents and then forced to resign by the university's president. By 1963, the Johns Committee could boast of having caused the firing of 39 professors and deans, as well as the revoking of teaching certificates for 71 public school teachers, all suspected or admitted homosexuals. Scores of students were interrogated and subsequently expelled from public colleges across the state, as well.
In recent years, President J. Wayne Reitz and the University of Florida administration of that day have been harshly criticized for their close cooperation with the Johns Committee, allowing uniformed investigators to come onto campus and to make tape recordings of interrogation sessions with faculty and students. Many faculty were too afraid of exposure to resist the violation of their civil liberties:
The American Association of University Professors informed professors of their rights, but those who had something to fear were too afraid to ask for an arrest warrant or subpoena. Either of these would mean that their private lives could be played out for the public to read about in the newspaper.
In all, 15 University of Florida professors were fired in 1959 as a result of the committee's investigation.
Attack on academic freedom
Not content with rooting out homosexuals, the Johns Committee's investigators also interfered with academic freedom on state college campuses:
Once in Tampa [at the University of South Florida], the committee singled out faculty for allegedly picking up on male students, scheduling speeches by "known communist sympathizers," teaching evolution as fact and assigning "obscene" books of "intellectual garbage" like the classic Catcher in the Rye. …Many deans objected to the committee's activities, and local editorials blasted the report as "a disgrace" and "a shameful document." USF suspended Sheldon N. Grebstein, assistant professor of English, after the committee denounced him for handing out "indecent" reprints of literary criticism aimed at Beat writers.
Another source states that
the committee surmised that USF's curriculum corrupted students through the use of "trashy and pornographic" works such as The Grapes of Wrath and Brave New World and that some faculty "were not qualified to teach" because they introduced evolution into their lectures in biology classes.
The purple pamphlet
Criticism of the Johns Committee's work intensified after the 1964 publication of its report, Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida, informally called "the Purple Pamphlet" on account of its cover, which immediately became infamous for including pictures of homosexual activity. More than two thousand copies of the report were printed, some of which were later reportedly sold as pornography in New York City. The report included such dire warnings as these:
The best and current estimate of active homosexuals in Florida is 60,000 individuals. The plain fact of the matter is that a great many homosexuals have an insatiable appetite for sexual activities and find special gratification in the recruitment to their ranks of youth. The homosexual's goal is to "bring over" the young person, to hook him for homosexuality. A veteran investigator of homosexual activities… said, "We must do everything in our power to create one thing in the minds of every homosexual and that is to keep their hands off our children. …if we don't act soon we will wake up some morning and find they are too big to fight. They may be already. I hope not." We hope that many citizen organizations in Florida will use this report… to prepare their children to meet the temptations of homosexuality lurking today in the vicinity of nearly every institution of learning."
Similar claims that unrestrained homosexuals would prey on children were later repeated and widely publicized by Anita Bryant in her successful Save Our Children campaign to repeal Dade County's so-called gay rights ordinance in 1977. Partly due to her victory there, in 1978 the Florida Legislature, still dominated by a small group of North Florida senators, passed a bill prohibiting homosexuals from adopting children; the statute has survived several court challenges, and was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in 2004.
Disbandment and sealed records
Lawmakers outraged at what the media were calling "state-sponsored pornography" forbade the printing of further copies and eliminated funding for the Johns Committee at the next legislative session. The committee subsequently disbanded and ceased its work in 1966, having amassed 30,000 pages of secret documents, which were left in the custody of the Legislature, to be kept sealed for 72 years. In 1993, however, bowing to pressure from Florida historians under the state's public records law, the Legislature authorized the placement in the Florida State Archives of a photocopied set of the records, with all individuals' names blacked out except those of the committee's members, staff, and public officials. The redacted records are available for public review at the archives in Tallahassee.
Although his committee folded when the Legislature withdrew funding, Johns remained proud of his work:
In a 1972 interview, Charley Johns said he saw the committee as a way to stamp out homosexuality. He said he was particularly disturbed by the number of homosexuals at U.F. "I don't get no love out of hurting people. But that situation in Gainesville, my Lord have mercy. I never saw nothing like it in my life. If we saved one boy from being made homosexual, it was justified."
Victims of the witch hunt felt differently, however. When interviewed in 2000, Art Coppleston said:
I moved on to a successful and somewhat normal life as a gay man. …But, never far in the background, has lurked the shadow of Investigator Tileston and the gnawing feeling that what I am, the very essence of my being, is somehow wrong. Bad. Sinful. Unworthy. I will probably never rid myself of those feelings. But time, and the new knowledge that others know about what went on in Florida some 40 years ago, makes those feelings a lot easier to bear.
In 2000, University of Florida student Allyson A. Beutke produced a half-hour documentary on the workings of the Johns Committee, Behind Closed Doors, as her master's thesis in mass communication. The film aired on PBS stations in Florida and was shown at the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival as part of the "In Our Backyards: Florida Filmmakers" screening in October 2001. The documentary was also screened at the Florida Film Festival in Orlando during June 2002. It also aired on The Education Channel in Tampa as part of the Independents' Film Festival in July 2002. The film earned a Louis Wolfson II Media History Center Film and Video Award.
- The Florida Memory Project, State Archives and Library of Florida.
- "USF History 101 – The witch hunt comes to USF," The Oracle, University of South Florida, September 24, 2003.
- The Tallahassee Bus Boycott — Fifty Years Later, The Tallahassee Democrat, May 21, 2006.
- Gannon, Michael. “Crises That Have Faced Florida from Statehood in 1845 to the Present,” Democracy and the Economy in Florida at a Time of Crisis, The Rubin O’D. Askew Institute, 2002, pp. 6–9. (PDF).
- U. Florida student documentary exposes the state's anti-minority, anti-gay practices, The Independent Florida Alligator, 2000-10-02.
- Striking Down Texas Law Against Same-Sex 'Sodomy,' Supreme Court Rights Egregious Wrong of 17 Years, Signaling New Era for Gay Rights, American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, press release, June 26, 2003.
- Behind Closed Doors: The Dark Legacy of the Johns Committee.
- James T. Sears, The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, 1997.
- Reflections on the John Allen Legacy, University of South Florida.
- In a Six-to-Six Vote, Federal Appeals Court Declines to Reconsider Decision Upholding Florida’s Anti-Gay Adoption Law, American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, press release, July 22, 2004.
- Production Notes, Behind Closed Doors: The Dark Legacy of the Johns Committee.
In chronological order:
- The Black Experience: A Guide to African American Resources in the Florida State Archives. Includes summary of Florida Legislative Investigation Committee Records, 1954–1965, 19 cubic feet.
- Reports of Investigators on Meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Ku Klux Klan (Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, Records, 1954–1965, Series S 1486), Florida Memory Project, Florida State Archives and Library]
- The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, James T. Sears, 1997.
- Behind Closed Doors: The Dark Legacy of the Johns Committee, 1999.
- U. Florida student documentary exposes the state's anti-minority, anti-gay practices, The Independent Florida Alligator, October 2, 2000].
- Gannon, Michael. “Crises That Have Faced Florida from Statehood in 1845 to the Present,” Democracy and the Economy in Florida at a Time of Crisis, The Rubin O’D. Askew Institute, 2002, pp. 6–9. (PDF document)].
- USF History 101 — The witch hunt comes to USF, The Oracle, University of South Florida, September 24, 2003].
- The Johns Committee and UF, Gator Gay-Straight Alliance, University of Florida, April 27, 2005].
- The Tallahassee Bus Boycott — Fifty Years Later, The Tallahassee Democrat, May 21, 2006].
- A Brief Unofficial History of Activities and Policies Affecting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Persons at the University of Florida, Dean of Students Office, University of Florida, retrieved December 30, 2006].
- Behind Closed Doors at the Internet Movie Database
- Complete text of the purple pamphlet
The following printed sources are held by the University of Florida library, and may be available at other libraries as well; see the library's listing, with call numbers, at Race, Ethnicity, and Politics in Florida.
- "Before the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee…" Transcript of testimony, Thursday, February 9, 1961. Tallahassee, Florida, The Legislature, 1961. One of the Johns Committee's publications.
- Schnur, James A. Cold Warriors in the Hot Sunshine: The Johns Committee's Assault on Civil Liberties in Florida, 1956–1965. Thesis, University of South Florida, 1995.
- Stark, Bonnie. McCarthyism in Florida: Charley Johns and the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, July, 1956 to July 1965. Thesis, University of South Florida, 1985.
- Wright, Devon A. The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee and its Conflict with the Miami Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Thesis, Florida International University, 2002.
Other printed or online sources discussing the activities of the Johns Committee:
- Elkins, Charles L. “From Plantation to Corporation: The Attack on Tenure and Academic Freedom in Florida,” Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 41, No. 4, 1998, pp. 757–65.]
- Eskridge, William N., Jr. “Privacy Jurisprudence and the Apartheid of the Closet,” Florida State University Law Review, Vol. 24, No. 4, Summer 1997, pp. 703–888.
- Poucher, Judith. “One Woman’s Courage: Ruth Perry and the Johns Committee,” Making Waves: Female Activists in Twentieth-Century Florida, University Press of Florida, 2003, pp. 229–45.
- Sullivan, Gerard. "Political Opportunism and the Harassment of Homosexuals in Florida, 1952–1965," Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 37, No. 4, 1999, pp. 57–81.
LGBT and Queer studies