Lauren Book seeks formal apology for Joseph McCarthy-era ‘Johns Committee’
Lauren Book. Image via Colin Hackley.

The committee operated during 1956-65, targeting communists and homosexuals.

For the sixth year running, Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book is calling for a state apology for a Cold War-era legislative committee that targeted LGBTQ Floridians, civil rights leaders and academics.

Book filed a resolution (SCR 688) that calls for a full reckoning for the actions of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee that she says systematically targeted, intimidated, outed and even criminalized its targets who were simply living their lives.

It was unofficially known as the “Johns Committee.”

“The Johns Committee is a black spot on our state’s history,” Book said, in a prepared statement. “We cannot make it right, but we can shine a light and apologize for state-sponsored mistreatment.”

The committee carried on activities like using taxpayer dollars to produce pamphlets portraying gay men as perverts, a news release from Book’s Office says. The committee also worked with the state Board of Education to revoke teaching licenses of suspected gay educators.

The committee, meeting between 1956 and 1965, reflected a national movement that targeted the same on a national level. It started in 1950 and became known as McCarthyism, when U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy claimed he had a list of 205 card-carrying Communists who worked in the U.S. Department of State. He led the House Un-American Activities Committee in nationally televised hearings raising the alarm about a communist conspiracy.

Democratic state Sen. Charley Johns mounted Florida’s own version of the movement that started with the desegregation push in the state’s schools, according to video footage, now online.

On an institutional level, the Johns Committee first targeted the University of Florida (UF) for rooting out gay staff members and students. The committee’s actions have been the focus of historical academic study at higher education institutions around the state. PBS did a 2017 documentary in cooperation with the University of Central Florida called “The Committee.

Book’s four-page apology proposal details how UF police rounded up suspected members of the LGBTQ community and coerced them into confessing and implicating others as they were interrogated in basements and motel rooms. The episode resulted in the firing of 14 faculty members.

A similar episode occurred at the University of South Florida, the continuing resolution says. It created a climate of fear, the legislation reads.

“In the spring of 1961, the committee began an inquiry into alleged homosexual activity, liberal teaching methods, curricular and policies at the University of South Florida,” the measure says.

“In 1964 and 1965, the committee published misleading and inflammatory reports about homosexuals and civil rights activists in Florida, drawing continued unfavorable national attention and perpetuating falsehoods against residents of this state.”

Book’s resolution, which hasn’t yet drawn a companion in the House, also has echoes of the current controversy that resulted in the Parental Rights in Education Law passed last year, which critics deride as “Don’t Say Gay.” At one point during last year’s debate, the Governor’s spokeswoman said opponents of the law are “groomers” or people who help “groom” children for pedophiles and other abusers.

The continuing resolution says, “In the spring of 1959, the committee reported to the Florida Legislature that homosexual professors were recruiting students into ‘homosexual practices,’ and that those students were, in turn, becoming teachers in Florida’s public school system and recruiting even younger students.”

Book said the time has come to disavow this history.

“Over the past several years, the State of Florida exonerated the Groveland Four and the Legislature offered a formal apology for mistreatment at the Dozier School for Boys,” she said. “Innocent victims of the Johns Committee deserve the same consideration and care.”

If passed, “the Legislature … offers a formal and heartfelt apology to those whose lives, well-being and livelihoods were damaged or destroyed by the activities and public pronouncement of those who served on the committee,” the legislation reads.

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected].


  • Paul Passarelli

    February 14, 2023 at 10:26 am

    If I were in that legislature, I would move that the body adopt the resolution for the “apology” on the sole condition that the Senate Democratic Leader agree to be bound by a gag order and never speak of the issue again publicly or privately under penalty of cash sanctions equal three times the cost of passing the resolution and all associated costs to the taxpayers.

    Let’s measure her determination.

  • It's Complicated

    February 14, 2023 at 12:02 pm

    Charley Johns was a Democrat. The Florida House, Senate, and Cabinet were all locked up tight by Democrats during that era. They guys who wore hoods, burned down houses, and hung people from trees were all Democrats. That fact should be placed prominently in the title section of the Senator’s bill.

    • Paul Passarelli

      February 14, 2023 at 12:06 pm

      Why is that not surprizing?

Comments are closed.


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