This article was originally published at ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
The nonpartisan League of Women Voters has been facing a nationwide backlash after decades of going about its business of surveying candidates, registering voters, hosting debates and lobbying for its causes with little fuss.
ProPublica reported in August how the volatile political climate has caught up with the league, with conservatives increasingly portraying it as a decidedly liberal entity. Since that story was published, we’ve seen candidates reject invitations to debate and try to undermine the league’s work in registering new voters. In September in Illinois, then-Lake County Board member Dick Barr, a Republican, publicly apologized for a Facebook post in which he called the league “partisan hags.”
This week, the group found itself once again in the middle of a political controversy. This time it was in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has sought to reshape a wide range of discourse, including by making it easier for public officials to sue for defamation and restricting discussions of systemic racism in workplace trainings. The league revealed that it had been denied permission by the Florida Department of Management Services to hold an outdoor rally on the steps of the Old Capitol in Tallahassee under a new DeSantis administration rule requiring groups to first get sponsorship from a sympathetic state agency.
The rule took effect March 1 and says the requested use of the space must be “consistent with the Agency’s official purposes.” Its stated purpose is to ensure that demonstrations are “conducted in a manner that protects public health and safety and ensures that state employees and officials can fulfill their responsibilities.”
A department spokesperson did not answer specific questions about the matter, saying in an email to ProPublica: “DMS routinely examines all of its rules in accordance with Florida Law. This rule was updated as part of the DMS annual regulatory plan to clarify procedures and requirements for public use of the Capitol.”
Capitalizing on a loophole that allows for news conferences, the league on Wednesday set up a podium in a nearby plaza, where it publicly addressed what it sees as the state’s crackdown on civil rights, including free speech. At one point, league members applied red tape over their mouths, symbolizing what they say is the muzzling of people whose opinions are at odds with the government. (DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment from ProPublica.)
ProPublica talked to the league’s Florida president, attorney Cecile Scoon, about the increasingly difficult environment the 103-year-old group faces in Florida in trying to promote civic discourse, freedom of academic thought and ready access to the ballot box. Scoon called the rule limiting rallies a “radical change” and said she is aware that some First Amendment groups are considering litigation. The league is already embroiled in an ongoing suit against the DeSantis administration over a 2021 voting law. A federal judge struck down several provisions that he ruled were designed to discriminate against Black people to reduce turnout for Democrats. The state has appealed.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You and your members were in Tallahassee for two days to meet with lawmakers and attend committee hearings and witness the government in action. What was the goal of the rally you planned to hold and what happened?
We have a lot of new members, and we want to expose them to all the different tools that we have — holding up signs and getting excited and being informed by my statements as president and our allies. That’s what we like to do.
We were told the rally space was already taken up. And then we asked for any other space and we were told that we had to get an agency to sponsor the paperwork and basically authenticate whatever we were trying to do, and our statement needed to be in accord with that agency’s policies. And that didn’t make any sense because sometimes you want to complain about the government itself, you want to say, “Hey you can do better here, please consider this and that.”
Do you feel this is part of a larger backlash against the league?
It’s hard to judge what’s in their minds. But when you say you’ve got to get permission from a state agency and we’ve been known to criticize and sue the governor and state agencies, you have to think that they were looking at us and other like-minded civic groups. You have to believe that. Because why would they require you to get someone to agree with you first?
What does this mean for your organization?
Oh, it’s very damaging. The league doesn’t expect everybody to agree with us. We are very capable and open and welcome debate and different points of view. That is not a problem. Let the citizens make up their minds of what they want to do and believe and who they want to vote for, but when you also take books off library shelves, when you also threaten teachers if they want to have academic freedom — K-12 and now the universities — that looks a lot like some of the other governmental regimes that wanted to stop the citizens from even being informed about what is going on.
How is the league changing? I understand you recently had a successful community forum in Sarasota about school choice that included views from across the political spectrum.
We got a lot of positive feedback from all sides. We’re going to have additional community conversations. We, again, are not going to be silenced. We’re not going to be muzzled. We’re going to create opportunities. We are continuing to double down on our outreach with many organizations that want more free speech and support these foundational American values. This morning nine of my members attended a conference and prayer breakfast set up by Pastors for Florida Children. … There were representatives from the Islamic faith, Christian representatives of different denominations, there were Jewish representatives there and many civic organizations. And we all plan to work together to make sure everybody feels safe and everybody can be heard. People are outraged, they’re upset and they just want fundamental American values returned to us. So it’s not just voting rights organizations.
Do you see a link between the rule regarding demonstrations and the DeSantis administration’s more well-known efforts, such as the so-called “Don’t say gay” law (which restricts classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity)?
It involves very similar treatment, basically, with regards to what a lot of organizations are saying — “You don’t have a right to say X or Y in your classrooms, you don’t have a right to have these books in your library for anybody.” So there’s a lot of consternation and a lot of fear.