Some protests in Florida’s Capitol Rotunda may be banned when state lawmakers meet for legislature’s 2023 session, which is expected to be spiked with culture-war-inspired legislation in advance of an expected Gov. Ron DeSantis presidential campaign.
The Department of Management Services published a Florida Administrative Code rule Feb. 14, allowing law enforcement more discretion to remove protesters from the Capitol building and charge them with trespassing.
The past two regular sessions have drawn protests over the teaching of race and gender in public schools,restrictions on abortion rights, curtailment of voting rights, and the elimination of minority-access congressional districts.
The rule change is expected to go into effect March 1, a week before the start of the annual 60-day legislative session, according to the Department of State and the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, which signed off on the proposal.
The American Civil Liberties Union Florida said the new rule is an attempt to “silence the public and chill speech.”
‘You’re wrong to mess with Black history:Rev. Al Sharpton, Black leaders rally against Florida Gov. DeSantis
DeSantis vs. TikTok: Florida governor targets social media platform in schools
Dozens of speakers from across the state attended a Dec. 1 hearing DMS held in Tallahassee about the proposed changes. Officials listened but did not defend the rule. DMS officials also did not respond to comment for this story.
They complained the proposal is riddled with “vagueness” and possibly could extend to the Capitol Courtyard and the steps of the Historic Old Capitol, locations used to protest the government policies at least since the 1960s Civil Rights and anti-war movements.
“The fact that this is being pushed right before the legislative session shows clearly, they know what to expect in 2023. They know their constituents are not happy with what they’re doing if they are trying to silence us this far ahead of session,” said Kaitey Kate Daney-Samitz, of Women’s Voice of Southwest Florida.
The rule covers “all portions of the Capitol Complex Space,” which takes in about an eight-block district (Gaines Street to Jefferson Street) in the heart of Tallahassee.
“Because of this proposed change the governor, and the Legislature will not have to hear from the people. And law enforcement will be able to remove those who speak in opposition to the legislative assaults on our liberties,” said Kara Gross, legislative director for the ACLU Florida.
What the rule says
DMS wants to enable law enforcement to remove from the Capitol Complex and charge with trespassing any individual law enforcement believes whose behavior will include:
- Visual displays, sounds, and other actions that are harmful to minors
- Gratuitous violence or gore (depictions of severe injury, blood, organs and body fluids)
- Disruption to the performance of official duties
- Outdoor demonstrations that expresses a view on public issues or brings into public notice or infringe on the ability to attend public meetings.
Opinion:Tough-guy Ron DeSantis defeats Woke Disney! Except … he didn’t. At all.
How we got here
For more than a half century protestors have followed Florida lawmakers to the State Capitol when they meet to spend tax dollars and set policies on how we teach our children, take care of the elderly and vulnerable, and behave toward each other.
In recent years the demonstrators have filled Capitol hallways, committee rooms and the 4th floor rotunda between the House and Senate chambers, sometimes quietly, other times with shouts and jeers directed at lawmakers.
The most notable protest of late was in 2018 after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre. Thousands marched through downtown Tallahassee and on to the Capitol campus to pressure lawmakers into approving the state’s first gun control measures in more than 20 years.
A timeline: Raucous protests and the rule to restrict them
Here are some of the protests that have occurred the past two years:
- January 2021, the Capitol is locked down on a Sunday in anticipation of a pro-Trump rally
- March 2021, dozens of union members form a gauntlet for lawmakers to walk into the chambers before debate and vote on a union decertification proposal
- February 2022, a group of abortion rights supporters removed from the House Gallery for shouting when lawmakers approved a 15-week ban on abortions.
- March 2022, hundreds of high school students chant “(expletive) DeSantis” during a protest outside House Chambers when lawmakers took up the Parental Rights in Education bill also known as “Don’t Say Gay.”
- April 2022, a handful of a gun permit-less carry bill supporters rally in the Courtyard and then crowd into Rep. Charles Brannon’s, R-Macclenny, office to demand a hearing on the proposal.
- April 2022, Black lawmakers stage a sit-in and disrupt a House vote on a redistricting plan to eliminate two Black-access Congressional districts. Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard said they should be charged with sedition.
- October 18, 2022, DMS publishes a proposed rule change to enable law enforcement, at their discretion, to remove protestors from the Capitol.
- March 1, 2023, new rule scheduled to go into effect.
What’s next? A likely legal challenge
The Florida rule making process provides opportunities for public participation and is a complex process riven with bureaucratic round-abouts and off-ramps depending on how the interaction between officials and citizens go.
Feb. 2, the ACLU requested DMS hold a second public hearing because of “procedural irregularities” in developing the new rule.
Instead of responding to that request, DMS filed the proposal with the Department of State for adoption and then published an effective date.
That leaves an administrative challenge at the Division of Administrative Hearings as protestors’ last maneuver to stop the rule change.
A judge could delay implementation and ultimately approve the changes or tell DMS to try again, which would involve another round of public hearings and review by the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee.
When asked if it would file such a challenge, the ACLU said while “all options are on the table,” it cannot comment “on potential future litigation or challenges.”
What protesters are saying
“This to me smacks of suppression of speech. Suppression of our right to come here.” – Mary Anne Hoffman is with the Tallahassee Citizens Against the Death Penalty and has participated in protests at the Capitol for 30 years, each time Florida executes an inmate.
“It gives discretion solely to the Department of Management Services to say you can’t have an event (press conference) when you fill out a form to reserve space.” – Melody Andrade Williams is a member of the Dream Defenders and participated in a 2012 month-long sit-in at the Capitol.
“On February 16, 2022, I did not participate in the protests that occurred in the House after representatives passed a heinous 15-week abortion ban. Yet, I still suffered a year-long punishment (banned from the Capitol) for showing up for my rights and speaking up against legislators. Because of the unreasonable trespass violation,” – FSU student Hannah Polk, who said her only offense was to wear a T-shirt supporting abortion rights.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahasse
Story Credit: usatoday.com