A controversial proposal seeks to restrict protests at the Florida capitol

Citing a possible infringement of free speech rights and other constitutional freedoms, dozens of people gathered to challenge a proposed rule by the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis that would restrict how protests can be held at the Capitol Complex in Florida.

The state Department of Management Services’ proposal, in part, seeks to prohibit actions or displays that are “harmful” to children from taking place at the Capitol.

“Because the Capitol Complex is often a destination for children to learn about their state government, visual displays, sounds, and other actions that are harmful to minors are not permitted,” as defined by state law, “ or that include gratuitous violence or gore”. in any part of the Capitol Complex that is not a traditional public forum,” the proposed rule read.

Numerous individuals and representatives of advocacy groups who frequently rallies at the Capitol rejected the proposal during a public hearing on Thursday.

Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy for the Florida AFL-CIO, said he has spent decades in and around the Capitol and “sees absolutely no reason to change this rule.”

“In 20 years, I have never seen the process stopped or impeded for any significant period of time, much to my chagrin, to be honest. I have never seen blood inside the Capitol Complex. I have never seen any officers or personnel injured,” Templin said.

Templin also said he has given tours for elementary school children of the Capitol building and never ran into the problems that the proposed rule seeks to block.

Protests have long been commonplace inside the state Capitol. During the 2022 legislative session, for example, student protesters filled the rotunda on the building’s fourth floor, just outside the doors to the House and Senate chambers, voicing strong objections to a controversial education measure.

The measure, which was ultimately signed by DeSantis, is designed to ban classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in the early grades. Republican lawmakers who supported the bill described it as a way to strengthen parental control over what their children find in the classroom. Critics of the measure derogatorily labeled it the “don’t say gay” bill.

The proposed rule could be used “to censor views in support of LGBTQ+ youth and families,” Kara Gross, legislative director for the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement condemning the plan.

Representatives of other organizations similarly criticized the proposal as having the potential to allow state leaders to stifle political enemies.

“Not only is the proposal itself outrageous, but the way they want to implement it will be nothing more than a profile by the State Capitol Police,” Tessa Petit, co-executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said in a statement. “They want to empower law enforcement to remove people they think can be disruptive from traditional public forums.”

Another part of the proposal dealing with “disruption” and “removal” of the Capitol sets forth offenses that would get violators removed from state buildings for trespassing.

“Public access does not permit anyone to enter or remain in or on the buildings at the Florida facility pool while creating a disturbance that prevents or disrupts the performance of the official duties or functions of public employees or officials” or prevents access of members of the public, the proposed rule said.

NR Hines, criminal justice policy strategist for the ACLU of Florida, said parts of the rule are unconstitutional.

“Protests are a crucial means of expressing disagreement with your government,” Hines said.

Hines noted that a portion of the proposal that sets criteria for trespass and removal by law enforcement, such as the Capitol Police, is a violation of rights.

The proposal discussed Thursday included some changes from an earlier draft of the plan.

For example, the latest version of the proposed rule removed a provision that would have prohibited conduct in state buildings that “creates loud or unusual noise.”

Another change rolled back a part of the rule that would have allowed people to be removed from state buildings for conduct that is “likely to impede or disrupt” the duties of public officials.

The Department of Management Services is accepting public written comments on the proposal through December 8.


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