Removing Confederate monuments could become illegal
After years of debate about Confederate monuments, Jacksonville may lose the power to decide what to do about them.
Local governments would be blocked from removing historic monuments from public locations and could face lawsuits, under a controversial proposal that started to advance Wednesday in the Florida Senate.
In a 5-3 party line vote, the Republican-controlled Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee approved a bill (SB 1096) designed to stem efforts that have increased during the past few years to remove monuments and markers, most tied to the Confederacy.
Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, was one of three committee members to vote "no."
“This is such a touchy subject when it comes to Jacksonville alone,” Davis said. “We need to be able to solve this ourselves without the state telling us what to do with the threat of a lawsuit.”
The bill — called 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 taking down, damaging or removing monuments or memorials would be open to civil lawsuits, including the threat of increased damages known as “treble” damages and punitive damages.
The measure would allow monuments and memorials to be relocated for construction or expansion of buildings, roads and other projects, but only to areas that have “similar prominence and access to the public.”
“If a monument is on a main thoroughfare where there are 5,000 cars that pass it every day, if the marker is moved to another location, it must be on another main thoroughfare where there are 5,000 cars every day,” said the bill's sponsor, Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers.
With cities such as Jacksonville facing mounting pressure to take down Confederate monuments, Democrats called the proposal another preemption of local government authority.
Jacksonville took down a Confederate monument Downtown in 2020 and renamed Confederate Park as Springfield Park. But a Confederate monument, "Tribute to the Women of the Southern Confederacy," remains there.
The monument has become a focal point for opponents who demonstrate weekly outside City Hall, calling for the removal of all monuments on public property.
City Council has declined repeatedly to take action. The council voted down a $1.3 million removal plan from Mayor Lenny Curry and did the same with a bill that would have put the issue to voters. City Council also shot down a $500,000 removal effort, failed to follow its own strategic plan to address Confederate monuments by July and idled an offer from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund to hire outside facilitators to help the city determine the future of the Confederate monuments on public lands.
Under the Senate bill, any plaque or sign next to the monument — for example, a sign putting the monument into historical context — would require approval from the secretary of state, Republican Cord Byrd of Neptune Beach.
Martin, the bill's sponsor, said the proposal 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 the removal or relocation of monuments or a failure to protect the structures from damage.
“There are many concerned individuals in my district who have been watching the news in the past few years and have seen historical monuments of all shapes and sizes, of all political creeds damaged, vandalized for political purposes,” Martin said. “I think what we need to do is make sure that those monuments, memorials are protected in Florida, so that our history can remain visible to those who want to study history, to those who want to learn more about our past without having to take a class.”
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, asked if a government could relocate a monument to a museum or just box up an item because times have changed and reaction to the item brings “pain to a community.” Martin replied, it could be allowed in a “very narrow situation.”
“I’ve heard that argument for many years regarding monuments that people just don’t like for various reasons,” Martin said. “A lot of photos that I've seen, I’ve done a lot of digging on this, and I’ve yet to see a single one of those monuments put in a museum for anybody to see.”
Supporting the proposal, Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said “this country is not all that old, but we have history. Not all of that history is pretty, but it’s our history.”
A similar measure (HB 1607) has been filed in the House.
Information from WJCT News was used in this report.