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Florida News / Special

Free speech covers everyone
Signing ceremony no place to forbid protest

When critics of Gov. Rick Scott's priorities were ejected from his budget-signing pep rally, it was a peaceful and orderly violation of their constitutional rights.

Disturbing  is the attitude among Scott staffers that removing lawfully behaving citizens was all right.

The people doing the removal, and ordering it, were government officers, sworn to defend the Constitution — all of it, for everybody.

The public, not just folks who fit into crowd shots for Scott re-election campaign videos, was invited to the event. The purpose was for Scott to sign a $69 billion budget which, as he reminds every crowd, is our money.

The complete commentary is available here.

Scott arrived shortly after his non-admirers were removed from the rally, which was set up by the Republican Party of Florida as a "private" rally. As he left the town square of The Villages afterward, Scott shrugged off the removal of more than a dozen law-abiding citizens, which he had not witnessed or (as far as we know) personally ordered.

A few days later, Scott said he'd look into it. His information-control director said remedial action would be taken. Given the administration's regard for public records and open government, this is like hearing clean-living tips from Charlie Sheen.

The Villages is a vast planned community that sprawls over parts of Lake, Marion and Sumter counties, populated mostly by comfortable retirees.

Republicans from Sarah Palin to Rick Scott go to The Villages to bask in the adoration of large, friendly crowds. Democrats? Not so much.

Although the governor's office sent out notices of the budget-signing event, it was the Republican Party that reimbursed the township for set-up costs and incidentals. A state employee, on Scott's staff, told sheriff's deputies to oust the demonstrators, who were not loud or disruptive. They said they only intended to hold their signs — amid hundreds of pro-Scott placards — and weren't going to heckle Scott.

Organizers of private events can reserve public property and exclude protestors. When former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick spoke there, opponents of Reagan administration policies in Central America were not admitted — unless they agreed to sit quietly, like everyone else, and ask questions normally when the time came.

A public place, even a publicly accessible commercial development like The Villages square, doesn't have to permit disruption of its events.

But the people protesting at Scott's budget-signing ceremony were not trying to prevent anyone from hearing the governor. "Pink Slip Rick" is protected by the same First Amendment as "We Love Our Gov."

This week, 15 House Democrats wrote to Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, asking about civil-liberties violation and misuse of public money to staff the event. It's safe to assume that the two Republican Cabinet members' concern will be inversely proportional to that of the Democratic lawmakers.

Booting out orderly, peaceful protestors was wrong. But the fact that Scott staffers thought it was right — and that Scott supporters in the crowd thought so, too — is much worse. 

Contact Senior Political Writer Bill Cotterell at (850) 671-6545 or here

Copyright ©2011 Tallahassee Democrat

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