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GOP leaders approve Capitol ban on protests, but does it go too far?


Capitol protests, like last summer’s 31-day sit-in by the Dream Defenders, are no longer allowed thanks to a rule change that will limit more than just demonstrations.

With little fanfare, Gov. Rick Scott, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford approved a proposed rule by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that bans overnight stays at the Capitol and shoos members of the public from the building after 5 p.m. or 30 minutes after an official function.

Members of the public who don’t have a Capitol Access Card, or who aren’t the guests of staff or lawmakers, will be told to leave after those times. That sets up a scenario that sounds problematic for free speech advocates.

“Those invited to stay could stay, but those exercising their First Amendment right would be told to leave,” said Barbara Peterson, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation. “If the building is open to others, why wouldn’t it be open to me? I would argue it would violate the First Amendment.”


The FDLE proposed the rule change after the Dream Defenders ended their sit-in last summer. The group began its demonstration on July 16 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The protests were used, in part, to bring national attention to the state’s Stand Your Ground law that many say played a role in Zimmerman’s acquittal.

While no one at the time alleged the group was unruly or disruptive, the FDLE said its presence required additional officers, costing $172,592.88 in overtime. Scott, Gaetz and Weatherford approved the rule change Monday.

“FDLE gave careful consideration to the security needs of the Capitol and formulated a plan which was signed off by Speaker Weatherford, President Gaetz and the Governor in consultation with the members of the Cabinet,” said a Scott spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, in an email.

While supporting the right of Floridians to “hold peaceful protests in specified areas” of the Capitol, Gaetz believes the “appropriate time to do so inside the building is during regular business hours,” said his spokeswoman, Katie Betta in an e-mail.

Weatherford deferred to FDLE.

“FDLE is Florida's security and law enforcement agency and the Speaker is comfortable with their recommendations,” his spokesman, Ryan Duffy, wrote in an email.

One group it won’t affect is the Dream Defenders, who, according to spokesman Steven Pargett, doesn’t plan to hold any protests at the Capitol.

“It’s just one tool we have,” Pargrett said.

The group’s political director, Ciara Taylor, criticized the rule as detrimental to future public access to the Capitol.

“The rights to peaceful public assembly, public dissent, and free speech are central to the constitutions of both the state of Florida and the U.S.,” Taylor said in a statement. “These limitations on the public’s ability to interact with their elected officials are an unnecessary and burdensome barrier to civic participation. These rules exacerbate a hierarchy among those seeking to speak with their legislators. There is already limited time to the public to secure meetings with legislators, who often give preference to those who have the money to make financial contributions. Now ‘after hours’ access to elected officials will be even more difficult for those impacted by legislation.”

 The Capitol Security plan changes are below.

-- The Capitol building complex is open to the public 8AM to 5PM, Monday through Friday, and closed weekends and holidays.  All or a portion of the complex may remain open additional hours whenever a Legislative or Executive meeting or official function is in session. In such cases, any portion of the Capitol Building Complex remaining open will close 30 minutes after the meeting or function, indicating the extra hours of operation has ended.

-- Overnight stays in any of the public accessible portions of the Capitol Building for any reason are prohibited.

-- Any person not possessing a Capitol Access Card, or not being accompanied by a person possessing such a card may be directed to exit the Capitol Building Complex by the time the complex closes.  Any person directed to exit the Capitol Building Complex and refuses to do so after being so directed by Capitol Police is in violation of F.S.S. 810.08.

-- Persons are not allowed to sleep in any public accessible portions of the Capitol Building.

-- Persons whose presence constitutes a fire or structural hazard or exceeds the occupancy level restrictions set by the State Fire Marshal’s Office may be directed to vacate the Capitol Building or move to another area within the Complex.

-- Preparation or storage of food or drink in the hallways and interior public accessible portions of the Capitol Building is not allowed unless done with prior permission of DMS through the permitting process.