Flag bill gets DeSantis backing, stalls in Senate

by | Feb 7, 2024

Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed support for a bill limiting flags displayed at public institutions to avoid political viewpoints, but the proposal stalled in a Senate committee amid concerns of discrimination and unclear definitions of banned content.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday supported a proposal that would restrict what flags can be flown at schools and other public buildings, as critics of the bill — and Senate analysts — questioned prohibiting flags that represent a “political viewpoint.”

The bill (SB 1120), however, stalled, in a Senate committee hours after the governor backed it.

Under the bill, government agencies, public schools, colleges and universities would be prohibited from flying any flag that “represents a political viewpoint” including any “politically partisan, racial, sexual orientation and gender, or political ideology viewpoint.” Debate has focused heavily on the potential that it could bar LGBTQ pride flags at public buildings.

Answering questions from reporters, DeSantis said he had not seen the bill but signaled that he would back it.

“If you take a position that, we’re going to fly the American flag and the state of Florida flag, and that’s it, it’s not targeting anybody. It’s basically saying that we’re not going to get into this business of doing this. So I think that’s totally fine,” the governor said during an appearance in Orange City.

“I don’t think you could say, you can fly any flag you want except one or two. Then I think that would be maybe content-based discrimination,” DeSantis added.

Hours after DeSantis made the comments, the Senate Governmental Oversight Committee heard from members of the public — most of whom opposed the bill — before adjourning Tuesday evening without voting on the bill. That could put the bill in jeopardy in the Senate midway through the legislative session.

“The committee is not scheduled to meet again,” Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said in an email. “If a bill remains in a committee that is no longer meeting, it is procedurally very difficult for the issue to advance.”

Members of the LGBTQ-advocacy group Equality Florida were among opponents who spoke against the measure, arguing it singles out LGBTQ people by banning pride flags.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, pointed to the measure barring flags that would represent a “political viewpoint.” She argued that prohibitions listed in the bill involve groups of people, not inherently political viewpoints.

“Race, gender, sexual orientation, religion are not political unto themselves. So, we should be as inclusive as possible. Not exclusive,” Polsky said.

Polsky also questioned bill sponsor Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, about whether flags of other countries would be prohibited at public buildings.

“Other flags of other countries, let’s say somebody is visiting the city of Fort Lauderdale, and you put up a foreign nation’s flag to welcome them to come. These days that could be potentially political. So, if they flew the Israeli flag and someone complained, would that be political? And who gets to make that decision?” Polsky asked.

“That’s not covered in this bill, but I’m happy to discuss an amendment with you, to make sure that we can honor our friends who are visiting from other countries,” Martin replied.

A Senate staff analysis of the bill released before the meeting also appeared to point to potential confusion about what would actually be prohibited.

“While the bill provides examples of what represents a ‘political viewpoint’ for purposes of the bill, it does not define the term. Similarly, while the bill clearly regulates governmental speech, which is not limited by First Amendment regulations, it is unclear where government speech (or that undertaken by a ‘governmental entity’) ends and private speech begins for purposes of this regulation,” the analysis said.

The analysis provided multiple examples of the proposal’s potential gray area about the line between public and private speech, including a scenario in which a “university-approved French club may be uncertain of the legality of its display of the flag of France at its club meetings on university property.”

The proposal stalled in the Senate committee for the second time. Chairman Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, adjourned a meeting last week before a vote was taken.

A similar House bill (HB 901) needs approval from the State Affairs Committee before it could go before the full House.


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