At least a 100 anti-abortion protesters gathered at the Florida Capitol building on Nov. 22, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
Abortion rights organizations and anti-abortion groups in Florida are facing some of the most restrictive protest conditions in decades as lawmakers pursue a six-week abortion ban and new rules in the Capitol make it tougher to rally and demonstrate.
Barbara DeVane, a longtime Florida lobbyist for the National Organization for Women, said the DeSantis administration is making it tough for lobbyists like herself to call attention to the GOP-introduced legislation.
“Well, you know, they’re making it very difficult this session to do things that we’ve done in the past to call attention to what’s going on up here,” she said.
“Now, we haven’t been having a lot of rallies and things like that because of the new rules that are in place,” DeVane added.
The rules, effective March 1, include requiring “reservations” for space in the Capitol Complex Space through a state agency, which could include the House Speaker and Senate President, according to the Florida Department of Mangement Services. The rules also state:
“To approve an application, the Department must determine that: (i) the physical characteristics of the requested space are appropriate for the requested use; (ii) the requested space is available on the requested date and time; (iii) the requested use is consistent with the Agency’s official purposes; and (iv) the requested use will not prohibit or limit governmental functions occurring during the date and time requested.”
Andrew Shervill, founder and executive director of the anti-abortion nonprofit organization Florida Voice for the Unborn, said he is unsure about the interpretation of the “strange” new rules and how they will be implemented.
Shervill, who hosted a Pro-Life Day of Action protest at the Capitol in November, said he didn’t see anything wrong with the prior policy, but they’ll have to wait and see.
“If it’s gonna prohibit demonstrations inside the Capitol, like on the fourth floor, which to me have been traditional free speech zones, then I think those rules certainly need to be rescinded — or even legal action taken to reinstate the prior policy,” he said.
Shervill told the Phoenix his organization hasn’t planned any demonstrations inside the Capitol. For now, their strategy is to “participate in the legislative process” via email, phone and in-person at the hearings. These plans could change based on what happens with the 6-week abortion ban.
Currently, Florida has a 15-week abortion ban, but the Legislature is pushing for the 6-week ban during the spring session. The first hearing on the issue will be Thursday morning in the state House.
While the new rules are in place, activists are trying different avenues.
Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said there were about 24 students and community volunteers from around the state meeting with lawmakers Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the abortion rights groups are doing calls, emails and overall communication.
“But you know, it’s tough,” she said. “People have work and jobs… a committee meeting at 8 a.m. on a Monday, that has to talk about abortion and take away 50 years of our rights, our bodily autonomy? What kind of democratic process is that?”
“We’re up there every single session saying the same thing, and it looks like they’re just fast tracking and shoving this down our throats,” Goodhue said. “And it’s not what the vast majority of Floridians want.”
DeVane, of Florida NOW, said, “All I can say is stay tuned because there will be more action as we go along,” she said.
Though plans haven’t been solidified, DeVane says abortion rights organizations, including Florida NOW, are in the planning stages of a possible “pushback” later this month.
“They can’t muzzle women whose basic freedoms are at stake and this is very basic when it comes to reproductive freedom,” she told the Phoenix.
But, for now, she said testifying against “bad bills” at committee meetings is the primary effort.
Nancy Metayer Bowen, leader of the Black in Repro coalition, which is a part of the Florida for Reproductive Freedom organization, said the 8 a.m. hearing on Thursday and those like it are implemented “by design” to discourage travel to the Capitol.
“When you have all these stipulations that stunt our freedom of speech, a government that polices our bodies, a government that does not allow people to testify a full one-minute allotted time frame, that just tells me that they don’t want us to share or voice our concerns,” she said. “They just want us to be discouraged and not show up. But this is not going to discourage us. We are going to continue to fight.” (In some cases, lawmakers are now allowing just 30 seconds for Floridians to provide public testimony.)
Bowen said the rules don’t discourage them from protesting, but “by design” impact working-class individuals who can’t make the trip.
“They can’t take off time from work — they don’t have proper childcare,” she said. “So it’s more so barriers around logistics other than them not feeling that they have to adhere to these new protocols.”
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