TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — New Capitol security rules approved by Gov. Rick Scott and Senate and House leaders will prevent overnight protests like the monthlong sit-in after George Zimmerman’s acquittal on murder charges.
The new rules went into place this week as lawmakers began their annual 60-day session. Among the changes: No one is allowed to stay overnight or sleep in any publicly accessible part of the building, Capitol police can tell unauthorized visitors to leave after business hours, and anyone who doesn’t is subject to arrest on trespassing charges. The rules also ban preparing or storing food in hallways and other public areas of the building.
The changes come eight months after a group called Dream Defenders held a monthlong sit-in at the Capitol to protest Florida’s “stand your ground” law after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. The protesters stayed overnight in the hallways and rotunda. While no one was allowed into the Capitol outside of business hours, those already in the building were allowed to stay overnight.
The group criticized the new rules.
“The rights to peaceful public assembly, public dissent and free speech are central to the Constitutions of both the state of Florida and the U.S.,” Dream Defenders political director Ciara Taylor said through an email from a spokeswoman. “These limitations on the public’s ability to interact with their elected officials are an unnecessary and burdensome barrier to civic participation.”
She also said that access to lawmakers already is tilted toward political donors and that the new rules will make the situation worse.
“Now ‘after hours’ access to elected officials will be even more difficult for those most impacted by legislation,” Taylor said.
The changes were proposed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which oversees the Capitol Police. Scott, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz approved them.
When asked, Scott would not say why the security changes were needed.
“It was a proposal they made, and I signed off on it,” Scott said twice. “They are responsible for the security.”
The Capitol is open to the public 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The public will also be given access outside normal business hours for legislative or executive meetings or events, but will have to leave the building within 30 minutes after the event ends.
People arrested on trespassing charges will face up to 60 days in jail and up to a $500 fine.
During the protest last summer, Capitol Police reported several incidents after business hours, including two shirtless men and a woman in shorts and a bra sleeping in the Capitol chapel, people trying to get into unauthorized areas and a nude woman washing herself in a public bathroom.
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