Rights Behind the Headlines: Florida Officials are Limiting Protest and Free Speech at Florida's State Capitol

Rights Behind the Headlines is a blog series from the ACLU of Florida that dispels misinformation and gives Floridians critical information about the most pressing issues facing our state. Read the full series at aclufl.org/rightsbehindtheheadlines  

In advance of the Florida Legislature’s 2023 session, the Department of Management Services (DMS) enacted significant restrictions that drastically chill and censor Floridians’ speech. These new rules empower law enforcement to remove individuals participating in peaceful protests and exercising their rights to free speech and assembly. The rules are overly broad, vague, and unclear. Read the headline from the Tallahassee Democrat here: Days before Florida lawmakers gather, new protest limits are set. Here's what to know

For decades, the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee has been a foundation of free speech for Floridians, serving as a place to express your thoughts on legislation impacting people’s daily lives. Individuals come to the Capitol to protest, rally, and support or oppose legislation. Throughout the legislative session, it’s normal to see the Capitol Courtyard or the fourth-floor rotunda, the area between the House and Senate chambers where law is debated, filled with Floridians supporting or opposing those laws. 

However, in advance of this year’s legislative session, the state is enacting significant restrictions on free speech and peaceful protest at the Capitol. These new restrictions took effect on March 1, 2023 and will drastically censor Floridians’ speech.

These regulations empower law enforcement to remove individuals engaging in peaceful protest and exercising their right to free speech and assembly.

The new rules are overly broad and unclear: they prohibit all “demonstration activity” inside of the Capitol buildings, including the fourth-floor rotunda, the plaza-level rotunda, and the second and third floors, all of which are places where peaceful demonstrations and protests have historically taken place for decades. Under the rules, “Demonstration Activity” is broadly defined to include any “demonstrating,” “speech-making,” “holding of vigils” or “sit-ins” or “any other similar activities conducted for the purpose of demonstrating approval or disapproval of government policies or practices,” or “expressing a view on public issues, or bringing into public notice any issue or other matter.” 

Prior to this, Floridians were able to freely exercise their First Amendment rights inside the building. The Capitol used to be a place for the people, now it only serves those whose speech is aligned with a select few politicians. 

The rules state that law enforcement can remove anyone for engaging in any type of demonstration activity inside of the Capitol buildings. It is unclear from the rules whether individuals will be “removed” by being arrested for criminal trespass or given a civil citation or through some other means. 

Additionally, under the incredibly broad and vaguely worded rules, anyone can be removed from inside or outside of the Capitol as well as numerous government buildings and adjacent state-owned lands throughout the state for unreasonably disrupting or obstructing official business (e.g., engaging in a protest) or setting up a freestanding poster or display.  

According to the rule, any person who “disrupts the performance of official duties or functions of a state … employee’ or “obstructs the usual and customary use” of a state building could lead to an arrest if an officer or other government employee were to deem such conduct “unreasonable”. In other words, the very nature of peaceful protest, to disrupt the status quo, the root of our First Amendment right, is in danger under these rules.  

It is unclear from the rules how someone can lawfully engage in “demonstration activity” outside of buildings and be assured that a law enforcement officer won’t deem their conduct “unreasonably disruptive” and thus subject to removal and possible criminal charges. 

If these new rules sound overly broad and vague, it’s because they are. It’s nearly impossible for the public to know what conduct will violate the rules, and where, how and when people can safely exercise their free speech rights.  

If these rules limiting free speech at the Capitol had been enacted in the past, some of the most historic demonstrations would have never happened. These include the 1960s protests against segregation; the 2013 Dream Defenders month-long sit-in against the Stand Your Ground law; the 2018 demonstration by high school students that filled hallways and committee rooms to protest gun violence; and the 2022 reproductive health rights protests against government restrictions. 

If free speech is truly the bedrock of our country, why are Florida politicians so keen on limiting them in a building funded for Floridians, by Floridians? 

There’s so much ambiguity about where and when people can peacefully protest under these rules and how law enforcement will decide when to remove the people from the state Capitol, but this much we do know: our democracy thrives and relies on the freedom to express dissent. 

Despite the state’s continued efforts to stop free speech, Floridians know the power of their voices. These rules will not silence us from exercising our constitutional rights.