DeSantis administration requires events at the Capitol ‘align’ with its mission
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The DeSantis administration now requires events held at the Florida state Capitol to “align” with its mission, a recent change that is sparking concerns that the governor’s office is trying to censor events it doesn’t like.
The Department of Management Services, the administration department that oversees state facilities, over the past few months has changed rules for groups or individuals who want to reserve space inside the Capitol. The changes require organizations seeking to reserve areas to make their requests through specific administration officials or legislative leaders and require they line up with the mission of the state.
“One material change to the Rule is that events must align with state agency missions and applications must come from an agency sponsor,” read the Department of Management Services letter, copies of which were provided to POLITICO by multiple groups trying to plan events at the Capitol. “Once a sponsorship has been obtained, the state agency shall submit the required application to DMS on behalf of the requestor.”
The management services agency has started sending letters to organizations that have long-requested space inside the Capitol for events during the annual legislative session informing them of the changes. The Capitol overall is a common location for demonstrations, especially during the state’s two-month legislative session that begins in March, and the rules will affect events inside the entire building.
This year’s session is expected to be packed with Gov. Ron DeSantis-championed bills that will stoke controversy and outrage ahead of his likely presidential bid.
A DMS spokesperson did not answer specific questions about the new rule, saying in a statement that they are "plainly written and straightforward."
The new rules specify that organizations must make their requests through DeSantis administration agency heads, the House speaker or any member of the Senate. The chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court can also ask on their behalf.
The DMS letters caught by surprise several groups that have for years requested space in the Capitol to host education events for their particular mission. There are dozens of annual events during the legislative session that include state universities having advocacy days, or specific advocacy groups holding informational and educational days in the Capitol during session to increase awareness of their issues of concern. Most events are uncontroversial and not tied to protesting specific issues being considered, or any specific piece of legislation.
“It seems counterintuitive to our rights that you have to ask an agency to ask on your behalf to use space at the Capitol to simply educate the Legislature,” said a lobbyist who for years has planned Capitol events for clients. “And only if your mission lines up with the agencies' mission is having space for displays on DMS property potentially allowed.”
“Does this rule really protect the constitutional right to assembly, and the right to petition the governor for a redress of grievances,” added the person, who was granted anonymity because they were concerned about retribution for speaking against the new DeSantis administration policy.
The changes have created concern that any event deemed not in line with a DeSantis administration “mission” could be denied space, a situation that some fear would affect demonstrators who protest controversial pieces of legislation, a common hallmark of Florida’s legislative process.
Each year, protesters have filled the Capitol rotunda, generally in opposition to Republican legislative priorities because that party is in the majority, though recently anti-abortion protesters filled the Capitol to urge the GOP-dominated Legislature to pass legislation that would lessen the period of time a woman can have an abortion from the recently passed 15-week ban.
“It is absolutely absurd and against our First Amendment right,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando). “It does not surprise that as GOP bans abortions, attacks LGBTQ+ rights, bans books and passes corporate tax breaks that they want to suppress freedom of speech and First Amendment rights.”
The rule changes also define “demonstration activity,” which covers things like “demonstrating, parading, picketing, speech making, holding of vigils, sit-ins, or other similar activities conducted for the purpose of demonstrating approval or disapproval of government policies ... expressing a view on public issues, or bringing into public notice any issue or other matter.”
Those activities would be less regulated and still allowed outside the Capitol complex. But the new rules include language that allows DMS to request organizers “reduce in size and scope” their event.