TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Jose Oliva saw no “direct or preemptive threat” in the wording of a tweet by a Lake County lawmaker who used a photo of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to issue a warning to protesters.
Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, also said he didn’t think it was within his authority to take action on a complaint filed Monday by Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miramar, after the tweet Sunday by Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills.
“The rules governing the actions of members of the House are in place to maintain order and decorum consistent with the traditions of the House,” Oliva wrote in a string of tweets Tuesday. “The rules do not and should not grant presiding officers the power to determine the wisdom of member’s speech.”
Oliva added his stance is important to prevent potential abuse of power that could occur if members of the House majority were offended by views of the minority.
“During my time presiding over the House there have been several occasions on which the public remarks of members have struck me as offensive,” Oliva wrote. “On every occasion I have sought to isolate my personal view of an action or statement in order to preserve and protect members rights as duly elected representatives and citizens.”
On Sunday, Sabatini issued a warning to protesters with his tweet: “Attention potential ‘protesters’ coming near Lake County, FL. This is an AR-15 — this will be a very common sight upon illegal entry at any Lake County business — FYI!”
Polo argued Sabatini was “openly calling for violence” against people who were protesting the killing of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man who died in police custody. And Polo charged that the tweet violated the rules of the House for exhibiting “behavior that is contrary to good order and discipline.”
Polo issued a statement Tuesday calling it “disheartening” that power is used when convenient rather than to “stand up to injustices.” She added she was “disappointed, but not surprised.”
“We have yet to hear a single word on the murder of George Floyd and so many others,” Polo said. “And yet, there was swift action to defend a colleague who has peddled conspiracy theories, incited violence and let’s not forget, is a member of the National Guard that may be called to ‘restore peace’ amongst the very protesters he threatened. What our state needs right now is courage and leadership. When we turn a blind eye or choose to be silent, we are complicit.”
Sabatini’s biographical information on the House website says he is an infantry officer in the National Guard.
Polo was backed in her complaint by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat.
“Representative Sabatini’s conduct fails to meet the basic standards of integrity, honor, confidence, and professionalism that the House’s rules require,” Fried wrote in a letter to Oliva on Monday. “Further, this perpetuates the representative’s well-documented history of inflammatory actions and statements on racial issues that undermine the integrity of your chamber.”
Sabatini, who has a history of provocatively engaging on social media, responded Monday with tweets directed at Fried and other Democrats who questioned Sunday’s tweet.
“@nikkifried has put left-wing politics so far ahead of her duties as a cabinet member that she’s been totally cut out from the state response to Covid and the riots,” Sabatini tweeted. “Desperate for relevancy, she’s now wasting stationary attacking freshman lawmakers --- flattering but very disturbing.”
Oliva acknowledged that Sabatini’s comments were provocative, but said it wasn’t his place to judge.
“The imagery notwithstanding, it is my conclusion that the wording of the tweet does not constitute a direct or preemptive threat to any specific person, organized group or entity,” Oliva wrote. “The tweet represents a stated and implied reaction to a potential threat. The specific threat being the illegal trespass of private property.”
Oliva added that “As for their wisdom, I will leave that to the public at large however, they were directed specifically at a hypothetical party who would engage in an unlawful act.”