The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (commonly 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 allegedly subversive activities by academics, Civil Rights Movement groups, especially the NAACP, and suspected communist organizations.
Having failed to find communist ties to Florida civil rights organizations, to gain continued funding it began to focus on a more vulnerable target: homosexuals, who at the time were widely believed to be a threat to national security, as well as a threat to youth. Students and faculty were fired or forced to resign from Florida universities, especially the University of Florida.
Charley Johns was leader of the Pork Choppers, rural legislators who dominated the Florida Legislature because of chronic misrepresentation, giving a city such as Orlando the same weight in the Legislature as rural Wakulla County. When the Legislature was finally reapportioned, through the Florida Constitution of 1968, the Pork Choppers came to an end, and with them the political power of Charley Johns.
The Sun-Sentinel reported in 2019 that the Committee "persecuted civil rights leaders, university professors, college students, public school teachers and state employees for imagined offenses against redneck sensibilities.… Niceties like due process or the right to counsel or civil liberties were ignored.… They employed entrapment and blackmail." The Johns Committee resembled the contemporaneous Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, "but the Sovereignty Commission, bad as it was, lacked the Johns Committee's unrelenting cruelty."
Commonly referred to as the Johns Committee after its first chairman, state senator and former acting governor Charley Eugene Johns, the origins of the committee are tied to the panic caused by Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's unanimous 1954 decision that racial segregation in schools, housing, and other public facilities (allegedly separate but equal) was unconstitutional. Many Floridians viewed Brown v. Board of Education as "a day of catastrophe — a Black Monday — a day something like Pearl Harbor". The Legislature passed a resolution (House Concurrent Resolution 174) declaring the Supreme Court decision "null, void and of no force or effect".
Johns had not succeeded in getting legislative support for a committee to investigate vice crimes. The "hysteria over the prospect of desegregation" led Johns to recast his proposed committee, successfully, as a tool to investigate the NAACP's activities in Florida. The Committee's 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." However, "Johns claimed that he believed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to be the only group that the Committee would investigate."
One of the Johns Committee's first tasks was to investigate and punish 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 find communist links to the NAACP, but failed, and were further rebuffed when the NAACP got a ruling from the United States Supreme Court denying the Johns Committee access to their membership lists (which they had mailed out of state, for safekeeping). 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 both pro-Castro and anti-Castro groups."
Stymied in their investigation of the NAACP, the Committee turned to the issue of homosexuals, specifically at the University at Florida. John d'Emilio has suggested that this may have been provoked by support for desegregation at the University of Florida, but Stacy Braukman sees it simply as a popular issue (cleaning out homosexuals, thought to prey on children) the Committee seized hold of.:68–69 As Johns said in a 1972 interview, "If we saved one boy from being made homosexual, it was justified."
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 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. Sodomy was a crime 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. In 1958, committee chairman Johns illegally sent a covert investigator to the University of Florida after his son, Jerome Johns, told his father that "effeminate instructors had perverted the curriculum." Other students identified professors as homosexuals for such flimsy reasons as observing them eating lunch together or wearing Bermuda shorts on campus. Investigator Strickland
hired student informants with FLIC funds, used highway patrolmen to remove professors from the classroom, and telephoned some instructors late at night, demanding that they provide testimony in Strickland's motel room at his convenience. He also prohibited the accused from confronting their complainants, seldom informed subjects of their legal or constitutional rights, and rarely offered them sufficient time to secure an attorney or prepare a defense.
Students, too, faced the committee's wrath. While faculty and staff suffered immediate dismissal if suspected of homosexuality, gay students could remain on campus only if they visited the infirmary and submitted to psychiatric treatments throughout their academic career.… The FLIC compelled personnel at the UF medical center to disclose information found in patient records and…also reserved the right to seize clinical records as it did when investigators seized paperwork on thirty-five female students who had given birth out of wedlock at the UF facility.
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 Sigismond Diettrich, a married man, attempted suicide after being interrogated by the committee's agents and then forced to resign by the university's president. In April, the university fired at least 15 faculty members and librarians. This was done in semi-secret, with no public announcement, so the students of the university had only a murky notion what was up. Over the next year, the University continued "investigations and expulsions of students and faculty" because, to pacify the Johns Committee, it had committed itself to "legitimate self-policing".:93
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.
"Florida State University and the University of South Florida attempted to make things difficult for investigators. But the University of Florida and its president, J. Wayne Reitz, have been criticized for cooperating fully with the Johns Committee." He permitted Johns Committee uniformed investigators to come on 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.
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.
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 2000 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 gay rights ordinance in 1977. Her victory there in 1978 helped the Florida Legislature, still dominated by a small group of North Florida senators, pass a bill prohibiting homosexuals from adopting children; the statute survived several court challenges, including one to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in 2004. A state court overturned the ban in 2010, in In re Gill.
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 on July 1, 1965, 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. They were used in researching the book Queering the Redneck Riviera. Sexuality and the Origins of Florida Tourism, published in 2018.
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."
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.
State Representative Evan Jenne and State Senator Lauren Book in 2019 introduced a resolution with "a formal and heartfelt apology". The resolution has not yet passed, and they do not expect immediate approval.
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.
In 2011, a class of students at the University of Central Florida produced a film that continued work done by Beutke and others, entitled The Committee. It chronicles the legacy of FLIC and Charley Johns, and interviews some of the same figures from Behind Closed Doors. The documentary was nominated for two Suncoast Emmys for 2014 and was awarded an Emmy for Best Historical Documentary for 2014.
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.
Other printed or online sources discussing the activities of the Johns Committee: