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How limits on demonstration at the Florida Capitol affect free speech

A group of protestors stand in the rotunda of a state building. Some are dressed in stylish dresses and other outfits; another wears a trans rights flag as a cape. Some hold flags, one person in the center of the group is jumping in the air with one hand up.
Brendan Farrington
Demonstrators protest outside the Florida House chambers against bills the chamber passed on gender-transition treatments, bathroom use and keeping children out of drag shows, Wednesday April 19, 2023 in Tallahassee.

Free speech advocates say new rules limiting demonstrations at the state capitol threaten the First Amendment rights of Floridians.

New rules restricting demonstrations at the Florida Capitol went into effect last month, just before the start of the legislative session.

The rules set out by the Department of Management Services limit demonstrations to outside spaces at the capitol complex in Tallahassee.

Requests to reserve space inside the capitol have to be made through the head of a state agency, legislative leaders or the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

People violating the rules can be removed by police.

State officials say the purpose is to ensure that activity at the capitol “is conducted in a manner that protects public health and safety and ensures that state employees and officials can fulfill their responsibilities.”

But free speech advocates say the rules violate Floridians' First Amendment rights — and they warn it’s part of a broader push by the Republican-led legislature to pass laws that stifle free speech.

Bobby Block, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation and Kara Gross, legislative director & senior policy counsel at the ACLU of Florida joined Florida Matters for a conversation about the impact of the rule change at the capitol.

They’re also alarmed by bills targeting what can be taught in schools, making it easier to sue over defamation claims, and shielding the governor’s travel records from the public.

"Protest is isn't dead, it's under threat," said Block. "The problem is the state is inserting itself, increasingly, as an arbiter and a limiter of free speech."

Gross said, while the rules limiting demonstration at the capitol are problematic, she sees them as part of "a much larger, coordinated effort to clamp down on speech."

"With every with most of the bills that the ACLU is tracking, there is a free speech component in there that is being chilled." said Gross.

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.