TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — Voices on both the Left and Right are sounding the alarm over a new rule that will limit public protest at the Florida State Capitol building and grounds. In a Department of Management Services meeting on Thursday, citizens expressed their concerns.
The rule, 60H-6.008, states that: “Buildings in the Florida Facilities Pool are nonpublic forums except those portions of public sidewalks, streets, parks, outdoor memorials, or similar public spaces that qualify as traditional public forums.”
Under the rule, the public is limited to the Capitol Courtyard, the North Plaza, the Historic Capitol Front Steps, the Old Capitol Steps, the South Plaza, the Vietnam War Memorial, and Waller Park to express their grievances.
It goes on to say that “Demonstrations and other forms of speech may be limited or prohibited when such limitation or prohibition is deemed reasonably necessary: (1) to protect the safety of the public or those employees and officers working at the building; or (2) because an individual or group is causing a disturbance that is impeding or disrupting the performance of official duties or functions of employees or officers working in the building or is disrupting or preventing access by members of the public.”
CAN BE CHARGED WITH TRESPASSING
The rule change has not been submitted by any political representative – instead, it comes from the Department of Management Services, which administers public property including the Capitol building and grounds.
The rule would empower the Capitol Police to remove persons considered disruptive from areas where protesters traditionally have gathered to voice their concerns. They can also be charged with trespassing if they are deemed to cause a disturbance or impediment.
BANNING “INDECENT” VISUALS
In addition, the rule bans certain types of imagery and displays on the property: “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 section 847.001, F.S.), 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 latter section could, for example, impact anti-abortion activists who sometimes bring signs with graphic depictions to support their cause.
“Currently, I believe a pro-life citizen has a First Amendment right to hold a sign depicting the victims of abortion, whether on the fourth-floor of the Capitol rotunda or outside in the Capitol Courtyard – if he or she so chooses to do so,” Andrew Shirvell, founder of Florida Voice for the Unborn, stated to the Florida Phoenix.
But John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council supports the rule changes. He tells the Florida Standard that children are often present at the Capitol, learning about history and our political process.
“We’re in support of the rule. It’s important because unlike a college, where you should have free speech zones, the Capitol is a facility where you have many children’s groups and teenagers. This is just to make sure that we are protecting our children from inappropriate images, inappropriate speech and inappropriate objects. This is good policy to protect our citizens” Stemberger says.
On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Kara Gross, Legislative Director for ACLU Florida told the Tallahassee Democrat:
“This is part of a larger concerted effort we’ve seen over the past couple of years to censor speech that those in power don’t want to hear.”
The public is able to comment on the rule changes until December 8. DMS will then publish a new draft of the rule. After that, there will be a 21-day public comment window where a new hearing can be requested.
The state agency has a January 16 deadline to file a request with a committee of lawmakers to certify to Florida's Department of State that all requirements for rule adoption have been met.
Once DMS makes the filing, the rule goes into effect 20 days after the state receives certification from the committee.