Activists pullout ahead of DeSantis press conference did not violate ‘Sunshine Law’

No open government law was broken when a group of activists were forced out of a public building in Jacksonville shortly before a scheduled COVID-19 press conference with Governor Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, a legal expert says.

“We are not moving. It is a public building on the public domain with a public official. What about the voice of the people?” Prominent local activist Ben Frazier said before being handcuffed and kicked out of the building.

The withdrawal of Florida Health Department activists to the Duval County Administration Building delayed the press conference, which was also moved to a new location.

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

Prominent local activist Ben 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 administration building in Duval County while the news and cellphone 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 press conferences are not open to residents who have not been screened.

Although it is a public building, the governor’s press conference with state health officials was not open to the public – only to members of the press. If the press conference was a public meeting, residents would have had the right to attend and ask questions under state Sunshine law, said Pamela Marsh, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation.

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

Under state law, a public meeting occurs when two or more elected officials from the same council or council discuss matters related to governance.

The activists’ withdrawal drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers, several of whom issued statements lambasting the governor’s refusal at the event to engage with voters who disagree.

“As an elected official, you have a duty to listen to everyone you represent, not just those who agree with you,” Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, wrote. “COVID cases are skyrocketing and test lines go on for hours, but the governor refuses to reopen state testing sites. People deserve answers, not arrest.”

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