Guest Column
DeSantis and his allies in Florida are trampling on our First Amendment rights | Column
Dissent is patriotic. Government censorship is undemocratic, unconstitutional, and un-American.
Gov. Ron DeSantis
Gov. Ron DeSantis [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published July 23, 2022

Over the past three years, Gov. Ron DeSantis has restricted Floridians’ First Amendment rights and repeatedly pushed for laws that violate basic American freedoms. During this year’s session of the Florida Legislature, these assaults accelerated.

Amy Turkel
Amy Turkel [ Provided ]

The First Amendment guarantees the rights to free speech, a free press, freedom to assemble and protest peacefully, the right to petition the government for change and freedom from the imposition of religious beliefs by government.

In the wake of national protests after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, DeSantis championed the anti-protest bill, House Bill 1. It dictated that any person participating in a rally or protest could be charged with a felony if three or more other people at that event engaged in unlawful activity resulting in imminent danger of damage to property or injury to another person. In other words, you could be charged for an offense committed by people who were total strangers to you, even if you were protesting peacefully.

In 2021, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker struck down that provision of the law. Walker stated that HB 1 “could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians. … This violates the First Amendment.”

That ruling hasn’t stopped DeSantis from trying to impede free speech in other ways. In this year’s legislative session, he and his allies pushed House Bill 7, an educational censorship bill, signed into law in April. That bill prevents content from being taught in schools that illustrates the discrimination, including race and gender discrimination, that has existed for centuries in our society.

HB 7 even bans private employers from requiring diversity training or other workshops related to race and gender discrimination, which are often used to create inclusive, productive work environments. Worse, the law gives employees the ability to sue an employer for requiring such workshops. HB 7 is a clear attempt to whitewash American history and to ban viewpoints the governor and his allies do not like.

DeSantis and his legislative allies continued to attack Floridians’ First Amendment rights by targeting LGBTQ+ youth and families with the “don’t say gay” bill (House Bill 1557). This dangerous legislation bans teachers from addressing LGBTQ+ topics in grades K-3. It also prohibits such discussions at any grade level if someone else does not deem them “age-appropriate.”

Any parent who thinks a classroom discussion was inappropriate will be able to sue, a provision of the law that will end up chilling speech and creating chaos. This legislation will further shame, stigmatize, and isolate LGBTQ+ youth, who already suffer from high rates of depression and suicide.

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On Feb. 17, 25 people were banned from the Capitol for a year, and another was unjustly arrested and held in jail overnight. All because a few people were chanting in opposition to the passing of House Bill 5, the 15-week abortion ban backed by DeSantis. That law is yet another way that a constitutional right — the right to privacy and bodily autonomy — is under attack in Florida.

In addition, over the past few years, we have witnessed journalists being denied access to official press conferences and briefings by DeSantis — attempts to block coverage of critical public matters, including coronavirus updates and bill signings.

DeSantis is waging a terrifying and unconstitutional assault on Floridians’ First Amendment rights, and all Floridians should be outraged by his attempts to silence us.

Dissent is patriotic; government censorship is undemocratic, unconstitutional and un-American. We will all do better when we have leaders in Florida who use their power to improve our lives and our livelihoods and are dedicated to making the values of liberty and justice a reality for all of us.

Amy Turkel is the interim executive director of the ACLU of Florida.