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Nancy Smith

Right on, FDLE: No More Capitol Overnight Stays

March 16, 2014 - 7:00pm

The group of mostly young people who occupied the Capitol for 31 days and 30 nights, from July 16 to Aug. 15, were well-behaved and respectful of public property.

But banning further overnight stays in one of the most vital state buildings in Florida, as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement did Thursday, is the right thing to do on behalf of all Floridians.

In a democratic republic, protest is a high right. It's a First Amendment guarantee. But that right doesn't vacate the need for reasonable rules fair to all.

The Dream Defenders arrived after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford. It was the longest sit-in demonstration at the Florida Capitol in recent memory.

Yes, the Capitol is the people's building. But it doesn't give any citizen -- me, you, the homeless man on the street, the Dream Defenders, anyone -- a license to unfurl a sleeping bag after normal hours and camp out for the night on the Plaza level.

And, frankly, nobody is there to hear the protest except security guards -- who turned out to be a costly audience for the taxpayers of Florida. The FDLE estimates the around-the-clock protest ran up a tab of $172,592 in overtime pay for Capitol police.

At one point the calculated security-staff overtime was enough to give each Dream Defender $200 a night to stay in a motel -- 10 times over.

The new rules announced Thursday got the approval of the governor, Senate president and House speaker. Besides a prohibition on overnight stays and sleeping in the building's pubic areas, rules include a ban on food storage and preparation without permission from the Department of Management Services, which oversees permits for events in the building.

Police can also now relocate or remove people whose "presence constitutes a fire or structural hazard or exceeds the occupancy level restrictions set by the State Fire Marshals Office."

Bring on the signs, the slogans, the songs, the unity, the outrage is what I say. This is America. This is what citizenship is all about. Protest your heart out! But doing all that within these reasonable new rules, outside our public buildings when the doors are locked, does nothing to fetter free speech or abridge any freedoms under the Bill of Rights.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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