In the late 1980s, the fortunes of Nick Navarro, the sheriff of Broward County, Florida, were on the rise. Elected in 1984 and on his way to nearly tripling his agency’s budget, he was also demonstrating a flair for dealing with the media—“P. T. Barnum with a Cuban accent,” said one South Florida defense lawyer. Navarro and his office starred in the inaugural season of Cops, the pioneering Fox reality-TV series, and made national news by clashing with the rap star Luther Campbell—including having him arrested—for sexually explicit lyrics on albums by Campbell’s 2 Live Crew.
Navarro’s relations with the media weren’t universally cordial, however, and spawned a constitutional challenge that may now have profound implications for another publicity-loving Florida politician, Governor Ron DeSantis: It exposes one of DeSantis’s most recent high-profile gambits as a brazen violation of the First Amendment.
On November 17, 1988, a Fort Lauderdale daily, The Broward Review, ran a front-page article that Sheriff Navarro found especially vexing. It was headlined “Navarro Failed to Act on Corruption Warnings,” with the subhead “Broward Sheriff didn’t pursue reports that a Bahamian cocaine trafficker was bribing his deputies.”
The story was the latest in a series the Review had run criticizing the Broward sheriff’s office, the county’s largest law-enforcement agency, and Navarro was fed up. The morning it appeared, he ordered a halt to the 20-year business relationship between the sheriff’s office and the Review, which, along with covering local business and law, had been the chief publishing venue for required public notices of sheriff’s sales and forfeitures. This revenue amounted to thousands of dollars each year—not a fortune, but enough to matter to a small daily.
I was the editor in chief of the Review (later renamed the Broward Daily Business Review) and its sister papers in Miami and West Palm Beach, which were owned by American Lawyer Media, the legal publisher created and run by the journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill. When I told Brill what Navarro had done, he conferred with his friend Floyd Abrams—the First Amendment litigator who had represented The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case—and we did the traditional American thing: We sued.
We won in 1990, after a two-day trial in the U.S. District Court in Miami. We were upheld unanimously on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta. Navarro’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was rebuffed.
We won because what Navarro did was plainly illegal. He had used the power of his public office to punish my newspaper for exercising its First Amendment rights.
The parallels between Navarro’s actions and those of the current governor are unmistakable. DeSantis has spearheaded the successful move to withdraw something of value from the Walt Disney Company—its 50-year control of the special taxing district that essentially governs a 25,000-acre Central Florida spread including Disney World—in reprisal for Disney’s vocal criticism of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, assailed as homophobic. With DeSantis, as with Navarro, public authorities withheld a public benefit as punishment for exercising a core constitutional right, and yesterday Disney finally sued.