Image via screengrab New rule could limit the ability to express dissent.
Image via screengrab

This measure could have been used to prevent protests against segregation in the 1960s and the 2018 demonstration by high school students against gun violence, among other issues. 

Even as Gov. Ron DeSantis extolls the virtues of “the free state of Florida,” the Sunshine State continues to sound an alarm for those who see it adopting many of the same tactics found in dictatorial governments, such as voter suppression, book banning, censorship, and state-mandated political indoctrination.

Now, under the new “freedom of speech” rules advanced by the Department of Management Services (DMS), Florida officials may have the power to censor dissenters and prevent demonstrations at the State Capitol, removing individuals they think could prove disruptive from traditional public forum arenas. These include the fourth-floor rotunda separating the Florida House and Senate chambers, and the Capitol Courtyard. 

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According to the proposed rewrite, individuals can be removed from the premises and charged with trespassing when law enforcement believes that they are likely to create disturbances or unusual noise, arouse prurient interest, or their behavior “will create a hazard or disruption to performance of official duties.”

Censoring the Democratic Process

According to proponents of the rewrite, “the Capitol Complex is often a destination for children learning about their state government,” meaning that “protecting” children is the state’s reason for censoring dissent and demonstrations, a measure which critics say would only serve to “protect” children from witnessing democracy in action. 

However, when asked if there is a traditional public forum on the Capitol grounds not visited by children where individuals could voice their dissent, DMS did not respond.

A Dangerous Precedent

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a First Amendment rights group with 180,000 members in Florida, is worried that the Capitol Police and those enforcing the rules “will have the unbridled discretion to determine which speech is permissible and to remove people if they think (protestors) might be disruptive in the future,” said Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel of ACLU Florida. 

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Gross also pointed out that this rule could have been used to prevent protests against segregation in the 1960s, the 2013 Dream Defenders month-long sit-in against the Stand Your Ground law, the 2018 demonstration by high school students to protest gun violence, and 2022 protesters from gathering outside of the House and Senate Chambers in opposition to DeSantis’ controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, among other important issues. 

If DMS makes the filing, the rule could go into effect 20 days after the state receives certification, or early in 2023. 

For its part, the ACLU is seeking to delay implementation of the rule with a request for DMS to schedule a public hearing and rewrite the proposal, opening up an additional 45-day window for public comment.

“The right to protest and criticize government is crucial to a functioning democracy and has historically and recently been exercised to bring about meaningful change to Florida,” says Gross.