Saving water, free speech and the Florida panther | Editorial
A weekly roundup of the good and bad across Tampa Bay and Florida.
Watering restrictions for Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties begin in December.
Watering restrictions for Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties begin in December. [ DIRK SHADD | St. Petersburg Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 18

Our precious water. Regional authorities made a responsible decision this week to crack down on outdoor watering, especially in the Tampa Bay area. The order by the Southwest Florida Water Management District comes after the driest rainy season in Tampa Bay in more than two decades. For residents in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, outdoor watering is limited to one day per week beginning Dec. 1. Elsewhere across the district, which covers 11 entire counties and parts of five others, the usual twice-per-week watering will remain, though “wasteful” practices, such as watering down driveways, is prohibited. The district also urged local utilities to better enforce the regulations. The districtwide restrictions are in effect Nov. 21 through July 1 and apply unless local governments have imposed tighter rules. Hand watering is allowed anytime, as is the use of reclaimed water, unless otherwise restricted by local governments. This is a sensible if modest rule that provides leeway for property owners while encouraging more people to switch to eco-friendly, native Florida landscaping.

UF’s costly mistake. A six-figure legal bill should provide the University of Florida a worthwhile reminder of the value of free speech. Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District of Florida has awarded more than $372,000 in legal fees to attorneys who represented professors who alleged the university violated their First Amendment rights. Political science professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith filed the lawsuit in 2021 after the university denied their requests to serve as witnesses for groups fighting a new state elections law in court. Though the university reversed course after a national backlash and allowed the faculty members to participate, Walker wrote that the case provided “a substantial rule change” in Gainesville that benefited “not only (the) plaintiffs, but also the entire community of faculty at the University of Florida by eliminating an unconstitutional hurdle to engaging in future protected speech.” This was a costly, needless lesson about academic freedom that the university should want consigned to the past.

Free speech reprieve. The U.S. Supreme Court got it right this week in refusing to allow Florida to enforce its new law targeting drag shows while a court case proceeds. Florida had asked the court to allow its anti-drag show law to be enforced everywhere except at the Hamburger Mary’s restaurant in Orlando, which challenged the law’s constitutionality. But the justices Thursday refused to override a lower court’s order that has prohibited enforcement statewide. The new law championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seeking the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, punished venues for allowing children into what it called “adult live performances.” Hamburger Mary’s regularly hosts drag shows, including family-friendly performances where children are invited to attend. The restaurant’s owner said the law was overly broad and chilled speech in violation of the First Amendment. Last month, a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s order stopping the law from being enforced. A district court had sided with the restaurant, ruling that the law “is specifically designed to suppress the speech of drag queen performers.” This was, in part, a procedural victory, but it’s another example of how Florida lawmakers have strayed outside the Constitution in prosecuting their culture wars.

Cars and panthers. And finally, it’s been a terrible period for the Florida panther. Four of the endangered animals were killed in a single week this month, in what the Times reports was one of the deadliest spans in years. Twelve panthers have now died so far this year, all from vehicle strikes. That compares to 27 panther deaths last year (of which 92% died from vehicle strikes) and 27 in 2020 (77% dead from vehicles). The good news, which we’ll take, is that this year’s death count is trending downward. Hopefully that continues. But as Dave Onorato, a panther research scientist with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said, any loss of an endangered species hurts the effort toward recovery. An uptick in road kills also raises the question of what more humans can do to lessen the danger. The state’s fast-growing population, especially in Southwest Florida, means that more cars are on the road near the panther’s habitat. And panthers need a lot of range to roam. These fast-moving animals aren’t always the easiest to spot. But motorists can slow down, scan the road and be especially alert between dusk and dawn. Every ounce of precaution helps.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.