George Gabel has a tie he wears on special occasions: It’s red and sprinkled with many tiny American flags.
Those special occasions? He gives a grin: “This is the tie I like to wear when I’m arguing First Amendment cases.”
Those flags, he figures, are a not-so subtle reminder to judges and anyone else of the importance of a free press and open government. It’s something Gabel, a Jacksonville attorney with a courtly, soft-spoken manner, has been fighting for since the 1960s.
For that work, he was honored Tuesday in Tallahassee with the First Amendment Foundation’s Pete Weitzel/Friend of the First Amendment Award.
Frank Denton, editor of The Florida Times-Union, nominated Gabel for the award, calling him a “warrior for the First Amendment.” He cited numerous cases in which Gabel tangled with judges and politicians on behalf of the public’s right to know what is going on, noting that Gabel “is always there to stand up in court on behalf of the Sunshine Laws and the First Amendment.”
It is a point of passion for Gabel, who likes to quote Thomas Jefferson on the matter. And he mentions a T-shirt that Judy, his wife of 52 years, bought him emblazoned with quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that reads: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Without a pause, he then said: “One of the things that matters to me is the First Amendment and open government.”
Gabel is an attorney at Holland & Knight and has an office on the 39th floor of the Bank of America Tower, where he has miles-long views of the water and land of his hometown.
He’s become something on an institution in Jacksonville. Walking through downtown toward a lunch spot last week, it was hard for him to get more than 20 yards without someone hailing him by name.
Gabel, 75, grew up in the Murray Hill neighborhood, the second of five children. His childhood was pretty idyllic, he said — people seemed nicer then, and life was simpler, safer.
But’s he not about to let nostalgia blind him; the new Jacksonville has the old one beat. “It’s a better place than when I grew up,” he said.
This newer Jacksonville is more open to new ideas, to new people. It’s more inclusive, more open-minded.
“That’s something a community needs to learn to do,” he said.
Gabel works in many fields, though he specializes in maritime law as well as media law. Both, he said, require him to be able to drop what he’s doing and work on tight deadlines. In maritime law, he helped write laws on international piracy as head of an American delegation to Singapore and worked for decades on international trade issues.
The award in Tallahassee is hardly his first. Among many others, in 2011 he was named International Business Leader of the Decade by the JAX Chamber.
He’s also the honorary consul to Norway in Northeast Florida, a position granted him by King Olav in 1989. He got the position after advising the previous consul, a shipping agent in Jacksonville. That’s led to four trips to Norway for Gabel, who helps on passport and shipping matters as a consul for that country.
On First Amendment issues, he’s represented the Times-Union, The St. Augustine Recordand Jacksonville TV stations, as well as other media organizations in Florida and out of state. He was even involved in the Bush-Gore recount in 2002, flying down to Miami to represent CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN and Court TV in trying to get the federal courthouse there open to the cameras. (The effort failed.)
Threats to the First Amendment, he said, are constant.
“The lesson is, even 225 years after it was adopted, we’re still having to make sure its requirements are followed,” he said. “I don’t think people really appreciate what we have.”
Florida has the strongest Sunshine Laws in the country, he said, laws that require public officials to do their work in full view of the public. Even so, politicians are sometimes protective about what they think is theirs, Gabel said, and “need to be educated.”
That’s where the media — and Gabel — come in. “The fun part for me about this work,” he said, “is working with the reporters and people involved in the media. My feeling is they’re very idealistic and believe strongly in what they do and the public’s right to know.”
In recent years in Jacksonville, he’s fought to get public documents released in the trial of Michael Dunn, the Satellite Beach man who was eventually found guilty of murdering Jacksonville teenager Jordan Davis after a dispute over loud music. He also successfully challenged a decision to select jurors in that trial without the media being present.
He represented the Times-Union in a successful lawsuit against Mayor Alvin Brown’s office. It forced the city to abandon a pension plan agreement that had been reached under secret mediation and instead negotiate it publicly.
He helped the newspaper get access to public records as it investigated the financial and leadership issues surrounding former Florida State College at Jacksonville President Steve Wallace. He also successfully took on the state and the Florida Education Association over releasing teacher evaluations.
In legal settings, Gabel is forceful and outspoken, which at first doesn’t seem to square with his everyday genial nature. He chuckled when asked about that.
“Well, my wife says I’m pretty stubborn. Quietly aggressive. Well, like I said, that quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: You have to speak up,” he said. “You know, hopefully I have the kind of personality where I don’t offend the court as we’re standing up for the rights of our client. And I say the rights of the public as well. That’s really what I feel like we’re doing.”
Original article here.