A group of about 50 Occupy Florida protestors from around the state were denied entry to the Florida Senate Tuesday afternoon as the chamber took up its first series of bills on the opening day of the session.
The reason, said Senate Sergeant at Arms Donald Severance: the group had been disruptive earlier in the day before the governor's State of the State speech and he didn't want to risk a disturbance.
"They were singing and chanting on the fourth floor and we talked to them earlier and asked them to keep it quiet,'' said Severance, whose job is to maintain decorum in and around the 40-member chamber. "Then they'd start back up again. I wasn't going to take a chance of them having a disruption."
A volunteer attorney from the ACLU, Richard Benham, arrived later in the afternoon to consult with the group and meet with Severance. He said it appeared the sergeant arbitrarily excluded some people but allowed others into the chamber. "People certainly have a right to access public property. People have a right to be in the Senate chamber generally. I don't know what the extent of the Senate Sergeant at Arms to prevent that is,'' he said.
"I was guilty by association. They judged me by my appearance,'' said Dana Humphrey of Awake the State of New Smyrna Beach in Volusia County. She said that she was admitted to the Senate chambers last year with her college-aged son but, this year, with her hair dyed pink, she believes she was excluded because of her appearance.
Several protestors said it appeared the Senate's rules were arbitrary and inconsistent. Many in the afternoon group were not with the protestors in the morning. Several morning protestors said they were never told by the Capitol Police that they were being disruptive.
"I feel like it was unjust,'' said Ralph Wilson of Occupy Tallahassee. "We came this afternoon to watch the Senate and we were denied entry becuase others were a disruption."
Mike Hankins, a student from Orlando, said he came to Tallahassee expected to have a voice. "This is a public building. People should be allowed to see what their government is doing,'' he said.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos said he had not been aware of the dispute but if the protestors had been disruptive he supported keeping them out of the visitors' gallery.
Photo: Lawyer Richard Benham speaks to Occupy Florida protestors after they were denied entry into the Florida Senate visitors gallery on Tuesday.