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A Bill Signing At An 'Exclusive' Political Rally? Experts Say That Runs Afoul Of Campaign, Free Speech Laws

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leaves the site of an appearance, Thursday, May 6, 2021, in West Palm Beach, where he signed a sweeping elections bill into law. The event was closed to the news media except for Fox News.
Joe Cavaretta
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leaves the site of an appearance, Thursday, May 6, 2021, in West Palm Beach, where he signed a sweeping elections bill into law. The event was closed to the news media except for Fox News.

One of Gov. Ron DeSantis' biggest legislative priorities officially became law Thursday morning, when the Republican signed a bill that will create more hurdles for voters in Florida.

The signing would have drawn enough attention, due to the controversial nature of the law — there are already two lawsuits calling the measure unconstitutional — but how and where DeSantis signed the bill has also drawn sharp criticism and questions over transparency.

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DeSantis signed the bill on the Fox News show “Fox & Friends” during an event in West Palm Beach. Supporters were packed into the Hilton Airport Hotel wearing stickers in support of the governor's 2022 reelection campaign. Some also wore T-shirts promoting a Trump-DeSantis ticket for the White House in 2024.

And beyond the Fox News cameras, members of the media weren't allowed into the event. Media outlets that were initially promised access were denied entry to the venue.

The governor's office did not respond to an email from WLRN inquiring about the logistics of the event — chiefly who paid for the venue and the staffing. Government employees are not allowed to participate in political or campaign events on taxpayers' dime.

"Even if no one was on the clock, it was a bill signing," said Juan-Carlos Planas, an election and ethics attorney who is also a former Republican state representative from Miami. "The governor was on the clock. Even if the staffers were not, the governor was performing an official duty.

"I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that this is an official government event that was treated like a reelection campaign."

Advocates for open government also raised concerns that the event violated First Amendment and Sunshine Law protections.

"The governor can't pick and choose which media organizations he allows to attend a public event," said Pamela Marsh, president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation, a group that advocates for free speech and freedom of the press.

She called the Fox News exclusive "viewpoint discrimination."

"Bottom line, freedom of the press doesn't mean freedom of one friendly network," she said.

The law would limit supervisors’ use of mail-in ballot drop boxes; make it harder for voters to request mail-in ballots or change their party affiliations; and require voters to submit requests for mail-in ballots every two years. Mail-in ballot requests are currently valid for four years.

The legislation is part of a wave of similar bills across the country, most notably in neighboring Georgia, following former President Donald Trump's defeat in the 2020 presidential election. There were no reported issues with vote-by-mail ballots in Florida or any reputable claims of fraud in our state's election process.

"It's completely needless, when Florida put on a model election last year — which even our governor touted," said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. Her group is among those that has sued over the law.

"Then he turned around and said, 'We need major election reform,'" she said. "Why?"

Despite the new changes, it's still easier to vote in Florida than in most of the rest of the country. Floridians don't need to give a reason for why they choose to vote by mail, and voters here are guaranteed at least eight days of early voting. Some large counties even stretch that out to two weeks.

— This story includes reporting from the News Service of Florida.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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