By Ryan Dailey ©2022 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Citing a potential infringement of free-speech rights and other constitutional liberties, dozens of people gathered to challenge a rule proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration that would restrict the way protests can be conducted in Florida’s Capitol Complex.
The state Department of Management Service’s proposal, in part, seeks to prohibit actions or displays that are “harmful” to children from taking place in the Capitol.
“Because the Capitol Complex is often a destination for children learning about their state government, visual displays, sounds, and other actions that are harmful to minors” as defined in state law, “or which include gratuitous violence, or gore, are not permitted in any portion of the Capitol Complex that is not a traditional public forum,” the proposed rule said.
Numerous individuals and representatives of advocacy groups that frequently hold demonstrations at the Capitol pushed back against the proposal during a public hearing 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 for a change in this rule.”
“In 20 years, I’ve never seen the process stopped or impeded for any significant amount of time — much to my chagrin, to be honest. I’ve never seen gore inside the Capitol Complex. I’ve never seen officers or staff hurt,” Templin said.
Templin also said he has guided tours for elementary-school children of the Capitol building and never ran into the issues the proposed rule seeks to block.
Protests have long been commonplace inside the state Capitol. During the 2022 legislative session, for instance, student protesters filled the building’s fourth-floor rotunda — just outside of the doors to the House and Senate chambers — voicing loud objections to a controversial education measure.
The measure, which ultimately was signed by DeSantis, is designed to bar classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. Republican lawmakers who supported the bill described it as a way to strengthen parents’ control of what their children encounter in the classroom. The measure’s detractors disparagingly labeled it the “don’t say gay” bill.
The proposed rule could be used “to censor viewpoints in support of LGBTQ+ youth and families,” Kara Gross, legislative director for the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement condemning the plan.
Representatives from other organizations similarly criticized the proposal as having the potential to allow state leaders to stifle political foes.
“Not only is the proposal itself outrageous, but the way they want to implement it will amount to nothing more than profiling 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 individuals they think may prove disruptive from traditional public forum arenas.”
Another part of the proposal dealing with “disturbances” and “removal” from the Capitol lays out offenses that would cause violators to be removed from state buildings for trespassing.
“Public access does not permit anyone to enter or remain in or upon buildings in the Florida Facilities Pool while creating a disturbance that is impeding or disrupting the performance of official duties or functions of public employees or officers” or preventing access by members of the public, the proposed rule said.
NR Hines, a 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 pointed to a portion of the proposal that laid out criteria for trespassing and removal by law enforcement such as the Capitol Police as being 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 dropped a provision that would have prohibited conduct in state buildings that “creates loud or unusual” noise.
Another change walked back a part of the rule that would have allowed people to be removed from state buildings for conduct that would be “likely to impede or disrupt” public officials’ duties.
The Department of Management Services is accepting written public comment on the proposal until Dec. 8.