Why are our First Amendment rights ignored in Florida?

There is a shadow clouding our sunshine.

In the recent legislative session, while overwhelmingly adopted in both chambers, Senate Bill (SB) 206 died in House messages. Only House Speaker Dean Cannon knows why he decided not to bring this legislation to a final vote, and he’s not telling us why our rights as Americans and his obligations to each of us mean so little to him.

As a result, Florida has no specific law requiring state or local governments to provide opportunities for public comments on matters directly affecting or of interest to private citizens. In addition, there is no state law requiring elected officials to permit private citizens any opportunities to speak at all on any subject at any public meetings.

It seems that our United States Constitution has no influence on elected members of our governments without a corresponding state statute. In effect, private citizens may attend public meetings. Private citizens may observe public meetings. But, when it comes to private citizen’s First Amendment Rights, specifically free speech and our corresponding right to redress of grievances, Florida courts are suggesting we — Americans — may not speak unless permitted by either an elected or appointed government official.

So, if they don’t like us, or don’t like what we want to say, they can ignore us. It does not matter that they represent us. It does not matter that they are agents of the people, per the state Code of Ethics.

Why do we need a specific statute?

Well, without a state law, elected officials throughout Florida seem to forget or ignore their duties to protect us. The obvious example is the failure of the speaker to bring SB 206 to the House floor. Once elected, many seem to act as if we work for them, or that they are in position to protect their personal interests. And political party affiliation makes no difference. Ignoring our rights occurs systemically.

Nowhere is this omission more troubling then twice monthly at meetings of the governor and cabinet. Remember the governor and cabinet members are our heads of state. They set the examples for everyone else. Yet, there are no “public comment” provisions in their agendas. And there are two parts of each cabinet meeting – the executive portion, often used for presentations, and the agency portions.

So, if a citizen wants to address his/her elected official, either you have to be able to get an appointment, and for most private citizens that’s impossible. Or, you have to wait for an agency to schedule its business as an agenda item, and then you have to ask the head of the agency to permit you to speak. If you don’t tell the agency head what you want to say, or they don’t want to let you speak, you’ll never have an opportunity to address these elected members of state government. And, if you want to speak about something that’s not related specifically to an agenda item, you are out of luck.

Where are the courts on this subject? A recent decision relied on an interpretation of the specific language in Section 286.011 (Sunshine law) which relates to “public meetings” but does not include exact words related to participation. Attorney General opinions refer to “participation” at public meetings, but the latest decision failed to address full compliance with the First Amendment.

The bigger questions.

Remembering the British King who ignored his colonists with impunity, leading to our Independence, why do we have to put up with being ignored now? Shouldn’t the governor, cabinet members, and every single elected member of local government step up? Why do they need another law before they do the right thing and remember they are in office to protect us and to represent us?

Yes, some people will not be articulate. Some may want to talk about matters not relevant to some board or commission? Some may repeat statements already made by others.

But, by their election or appointment, aren’t we enduring those in public office who act in ways we might find disagreeable or irrelevant to our interests? Aren’t we all suffering when those officials focus on political agendas rather than principles or when they haven’t done enough homework to really understand what matters are coming before them? Shouldn’t we be able to expect our elected representatives to hear first-hand from us when it’s convenient for us?

Every Floridian should make it clear to Speaker Cannon that we want our First Amendment rights broadly stated in state law so that every judge can rely on complete statutory language protecting our rights. Then every Floridian should ask the governor and cabinet when will they will set the example.

— Sheila Anderson, a Realtor, is president of Commercial Property Services, Inc. She can be reached at cps1@flash.net.

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