‘Reminiscent of fascism?’ Activists fear proposal could limit protests, chill speech at FL Capitol

By: - November 30, 2022 7:00 am

Anti-abortion protesters gathered in the 4th floor rotunda on Nov. 22, 2022, where lawmakers were convening for the organizational session of the Legislature. Credit: Diane Rado

In March, high school students filled the 4th floor rotunda of the Florida Capitol building in Tallahassee, shouting “F*** DeSantis” in protest of the Florida Legislature passing restrictions on classroom discussions of LGBTQ+ topics.

In June, abortion rights protesters carried signs which read “abort SCOTUS” and demonstrated on the lawn of the Capitol in protest of the U.S. Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade and federal abortion protections.

Examples of anti-abortion posters seen in the Florida Capitol rotunda on Nov. 22, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

And just last week, well over a hundred anti-abortion protesters gathered in the Capitol rotunda shouting out “make Florida totally abortion free,” as the Legislature convened in an organizational session. Some protesters carried posters with medical images of fetuses outside the Capitol building.

The Florida Capitol and its grounds have long been an avenue for exercising free speech — whether abrasive or not — but a new rule proposed by the Department of Management Services could lead to a chilling effect on protests and free speech for Floridians, according to various activists and organizers.

The rule, 60H-6.008, proposes limitations in how spaces are used in the “Capitol Complex.” It states, in part:

“Because the Capitol Complex is often a destination for children learning about their State government, visual displays, sounds, and other actions that are indecent, including gratuitous (sic) violence, gore, and material that arouses prurient interests, are not permitted in any portion of the Capitol Complex that is not a traditional public forum.”

The Capitol Police, which is responsible for the security of the complex, may establish additional requirements for access and use.

But activists and protest organizers from varying political positions find the wording in the rule to be vague and problematic, which could potentially chill free speech and ban demonstrations.

The rule is up for consideration and public comments Thursday, where changes to the language of the rule could be proposed.

Attempts to censor speech and silence viewpoints

Kara Gross, legislative director with the ACLU of Florida, said the proposed rule relies on “protecting children” to justify its existence.

“This is just the latest attempt, on behalf of Florida’s elected officials, to censor speech and silence viewpoints that they disagree with under the false pretense of protecting children,” Gross told the Florida Phoenix.

“We all want to protect children and these rules do nothing to further that interest. In fact, they may result in greater harm to Florida’s youth by enabling Capitol Police to censor viewpoints that support LGBTQ youths and families.”

She also is concerned about the vagueness of the proposed rule.

“What about a sign or poster that’s advocating for criminal justice reform that depicts individuals in cages? What about that?” she said. “What about a poster…that is supporting LGBTQ rights and it’s about two men getting married? What about people advocating for more resources for victims of sexual violence with a poster that says ‘one-in-four women will be raped in their lifetime?'”

“Yeah, there are all types of things that someone else might think are inappropriate,” Gross said.

Rep. Angie Nixon, a Democrat who represents part of Duval County, told the Phoenix that the proposed rule is reminiscent of fascism.

Black lawmakers in the Florida House protested on April 21, 2022. Credit: Florida Channel.

“The only way for folks, the community to often push back against bad bills or to help or ensure that their voices are heard are through protests and demonstrations. And now, they are trying to limit that. It is so reminiscent of fascism. Like dictatorships. And we can’t go down that slippery slope,” she told the Phoenix.

Nixon was a part of a protest on the floor of the House Chamber that shut down debates against new redistricting maps. She and former Rep. Travaris McCurdy (of Central Florida) performed a sit-in on the floor in April, arguing that the new maps would limit Black voices.

Just recently, the House adopted new rules to limit such demonstrations, the Phoenix reported.

“I think it’s all related,” Nixon said.

She added: “It is the People’s House, they own that house, and I am a part of the people as well.”

Lack of clarity

There are several areas in the Florida Capitol which typically get used by constituents and organizations for political demonstrations and protests: on the steps of the Historic Capitol building, in the open space between the Historic Capitol building and the new Capitol building, and inside the Capitol in the 4th floor rotunda.

But protests can occur elsewhere in the Capitol — inside committee meetings and even on the floor of the Senate or House Chambers by lawmakers.

But it is not clear if these areas are exempt from the rule or not.

Debbie Hall, communications director with the Department of Management Services, pointed to a different area of the proposed rule that says: “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.”

But it’s not clear what qualifies a space as a “traditional public forum.”

“It seems like there’s a lot of lack of clarity of this,” Lauren Brenzel, organizing director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, told the Phoenix.

“But when we talk about the concept of ‘keeping Florida free’ and freedom — we pay for that building. That’s a taxpayer building,” she said. “So, I understand maybe some different rules might take place inside of a legislator’s office. But if we’re talking about the rotunda, if we’re talking about a committee room, if we’re talking about the courtyard, if we’re talking about the old Capitol complex — those are all public spaces.”

The anti-abortion crowd is also concerned about how the rule may impact its political messaging.

Andrew Shirvell, founder of Florida Voice for the Unborn, finds the rule as it is currently written “problematic.”

“The terms ‘gratuitous violence’ and ‘gore’ are often in the eye of the beholder,” he said in an email to the Phoenix.

“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,” Shirvell continued in the email. “Such a demonstration is not in any way ‘indecent,’ in my opinion.  The proposed rule should be modified so that only authentically obscene displays and actions, such as pornography, are restricted at the Capitol.”

Shirvell said that Florida Voice for the Unborn welcomes “genuine governmental efforts to protect children from being exposed to obscene materials and actions.”

It’s not clear who would make the determinations as to what’s indecent.

Students protesting on the 5th floor of the Florida Capitol Building. March 3, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

“I would really question what we’re talking about young people not seeing,” Brenzel with Planned Parenthood asked. “One of the things that it says is ‘arousing prurient interest’ – like, what does that mean?”

Brenzel also remarked on the student-centered protest against HB 1557 and how it could impact young folks just starting to get involved in politics.

During the 2022 legislative session, high school students, many of whom were minors, loudly chanted “F*** DeSantis” on the 4th floor rotunda in protest of HB 1557, which prohibits certain discussions of LGBTQ+ topics from Florida classrooms.

“We’re seeing a potential chilling effect on that, and a chilling effect that’s actually targeted towards young people, that we are really worried about. We want our young people to be able to engage in some of the most fundamental American ideals, which is protest and which is making their voices known,” Brenzel said.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.