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Activists' removal ahead of DeSantis press conference didn't violate 'Sunshine Law'

The Florida Channel (screenshot)
Activists in Jacksonville are removed from the Florida Department of Health in Duval County's administrative building ahead of a press conference with Gov. Ron DeSantis and state health officials on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.

No open government laws were broken when a group of activists was forced to leave a public building in Jacksonville shortly before a scheduled COVID-19 news conference with Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, according to one legal expert.

“We’re not moving. This is a public building on public property with a public official. What about the voice of the people?" said prominent local activist Ben Frazier before he was handcuffed and removed from the building.

The activists' removal from the Florida Department of Health in Duval County's administrative building delayed the press conference, which was also moved to a new location.

Democrats are criticizing DeSantis for refusing to listen to constituents' concerns about the pandemic at the event.

Frazier said he had questions for DeSantis about the state's response to the pandemic before he was handcuffed and escorted out of the Florida Department of Health administrative building in Duval County, while news and cell phone cameras were rolling.

Frazier was among several other local activists who showed up ahead of the governor’s press conference. A staff member explained to them that the governor’s news conferences aren’t open to residents who haven’t been screened.

Though it was a public building, the governor’s press conference with state health officials wasn’t open to the public—only to members of the press. If the press conference were a public meeting, residents would have had a right to attend and ask questions under the state’s Sunshine Law, said Pamela Marsh, executive director of First Amendment Foundation.

“It’s even more than access when it comes to a public meeting," Marsh said. "There’s a right to an actual public comment period so that if they’re discussing an issue together, the public should have a right to participate and have their say. This is not the same thing.”

Under state law, a public meeting occurs when two or more elected officials of the same council or board are discussing matters related to governance.

The activists’ removal drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers, several of whom issued statements blasting the governor's refusal at the event to engage with constituents who disagree.

"As an elected official, you have a duty to listen to all the people you represent, not just those who agree with you," wrote Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville. "COVID cases are skyrocketing and lines for testing are hours long, yet the governor refuses to re-open state testing sites. The people deserve answers, not arrest."

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.