Demonstrators near Hillsborough County Sheriff's offices in Tampa, Florida on Aug. 14, 2021.
Supporters of Confederate monuments and other historical markers could sue over removal or destruction of the displays, under a controversial proposal continuing to move forward in the Florida Senate.
In a 6-2 party-line vote, the Republican-controlled Community Affairs Committee on Wednesday backed the bill (SB 1096), which would give standing to people to file lawsuits if they believe they have “lost history” or the ability to teach about the past because of monuments being removed or relocated or because the structures were not protected from damage.
“What I like about these memorials in public places is that everybody has the opportunity to see who we were,” bill sponsor Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, said.
“The older the monument, the more important it is, because it provides a starting point for what our country began as, who led our country,” Martin added. “And looking around in modern-day America, especially many of our big cities, sitting even up here in the committee room, we can look around and see that our America looks a lot different than it did when any of these people who are depicted in monuments were running things."
The measure comes after controversies in recent years in Florida and other states about removing historic markers, many honoring members of the Confederacy.
Santa Rosa County Commissioner James Calkins supported the proposal.
“Right now, we have a movement in this country to take down and destroy historic monuments,” Calkins said. “They started with Confederate monuments. It didn't end there. Christopher Columbus. George Washington's next. And we need to protect our monuments. We need to protect our history.”
But Sen. Rosalind Osgood, D-Fort Lauderdale, said many markers were erected after the Civil War and during the 1950s and 1960s in defiance of the civil-rights movement.
“I'm hoping that we'll get to a point where we can have some real tough conversations to understand why different groups feel different ways about certain things,” Osgood, who is Black, said. “People that look like me really are offended by a lot of the Confederate monuments.”
Jonathan Webber, a lobbyist for the Montgomery, Ala.-based SPLC Action Fund, argued Confederate monuments honor people who took up arms against the United States and “are symbolic reminders of the racist social hierarchy that can still be felt today.”
The bill, titled the “Historical Monuments and Memorials Protection Act,” would apply to a wide range of items, including plaques, statues, markers, flags and banners, that are considered permanent displays “dedicated to a historical person, entity, event or series of events, and that honors or recounts the military service of any past or present military personnel or the past or present public service of a resident of the geographical area.”
People responsible for damaging or removing monuments or memorials would be open to civil lawsuits, including a threat of increased damages known as “treble” damages and punitive damages.
The measure would allow monuments and memorials to be relocated but only to areas that have “similar prominence and access to the public.”
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Eustis, said people should “respect” memorials, as “we all have plenty to repent of personally, in addition to whatever our ancestors did.”
“I think this could be a step forward of just mutual respect, and yeah, maybe force us to confront our failures of the past and force us to say, ‘We have gotten better on some things,’” Baxley added. “But to condemn other people's memorialization, when they're not even here to explain themselves or their role, I think it's very disrespectful.”
The proposal must be approved by the Rules Committee to reach the Senate floor.
A House version (HB 1607) cleared the Constitutional Rights, Rule of Law & Government Operations Subcommittee last week in a 9-3 vote.