New legislation would let Gov. DeSantis remove local officials who take down Confederate monuments

Legislation filed in the House would protect monuments honoring soldiers, including those who fought for the Confederate States of America against the federal government, and would give the state a wide variety of enforcement powers against local officials who subverted the legislative will.

HB 395, filed by Rep. Dean Black of Jacksonville, proposes state “protection of historical monuments and memorials” and authorizes “all actions to protect and preserve all historical monuments and memorials from removal, damage, or destruction.”

Black filed the legislation in 2023, but he notes there are “lots of changes” and that the new product is a “much better bill” than the previous iteration.

Indeed, the legislation has teeth that the previous product did not, giving the executive branch powers that include removing noncompliant officials.

The bill would punish local lawmakers and officials who voted to remove such memorials, authorizing a fine of the costs of replacing or repairing the memorial out of their personal wealth for removal actions. It would also give Ron DeSantis the power to remove elected leaders from local office from the time the bill takes effect.

“An elected official acting in his or her official capacity who knowingly and willfully violates this section is subject to removal from office by the Governor,” the bill reads.

The bill explicitly stipulates that “any official, agent, or member of a local government who directs, permits, facilitates, or votes to remove or destroy a monument or memorial is subject to a civil penalty of up to $5,000, or the actual cost of the removal and replacement of the monument or memorial, including repairs that may be necessitated due to the relocation and replacement, whichever is greater. Such penalty shall be paid from the official’s, agent’s, or member’s personal funds without any reimbursement from any other entity.”

This suggests that the burden of repayment would fall on local officials, rather than the taxpayer, should they take the risk of flouting state law.

The state would preempt local authority over monument removal unless it’s part of a construction project, in which case moving the structure would be allowed for up to a year.

After that, the edifice “shall be placed back at the original location or, if that is not possible, as close as possible to the original location in a prominent place for easy and accessible public viewing as determined by the Florida Historical Commission or, for a military monument or memorial, as determined by the executive director of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.”

The bill bans “a historical monument or memorial” from being “removed, damaged, or destroyed.”

“Accurate history belongs to all Floridians in perpetuity,” Black’s legislation reads. But it does permit a “contextual plaque or marker … near the monument or memorial if the Secretary of State or the executive director of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, as appropriate, and the State Historic Preservation Officer, after consulting with the Florida Historical Commission, decide that such marker provides a more accurate understanding of the monument or memorial.”

The bill language makes the state preemption explicit against “any local elected officials who may be swayed by undue influence by groups who may feel offended or hurt by certain actions in the history of the state or the nation.” It is unclear what “undue influence” means in this context.

The bill also contemplates retroactive penalties for “removed, damaged, or destroyed … monuments or memorials” after 2016, including fines for responsible parties that are three times the cost of replacing the monument, and “punitive damages” that are unspecified. The legislation gives standing to all manner of interested parties, including a “person regularly using the monument or memorial for remembrance.”

The state could also claw back removal funds, by withholding cultural funding provided by the Department of State until that financial obligation is satisfied, to pay for the replacement of the monument.

Finally, the legislation would ensure that a statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, formerly in the National Statuary Hall, would be displayed, at state expense, no later than July 2025.

In 2023, Sen. Jonathan Martin carried a version of the bill, and he’s on board for the current legislation. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill died in committee, amid heated discussion about issues like whether the bill was a Trojan horse for the “Lost Cause” of confederate enthusiasm.

Black’s legislation would bring a state resolution to a long-simmering controversy in Jacksonville, where one major monument in what is now James Weldon Johnson Park has already been removed by former Republican Mayor Lenny Curry, while a tribute to the women of the confederacy in Springfield Park remains despite the former Mayor’s best efforts.

Current Democratic Mayor Donna Deegan has lobbied the City Council to allocate funds for the removal of the remaining statue, which would be moved off of public lands and left somewhere private for monument enthusiasts to visit it. Thus far, the supermajority Republican Council has resisted those executive branch efforts. State legislation would obviously make such efforts moot.

Deegan denounced the legislative proposal Thursday afternoon.

“This bill would be just another slap in the face to our Black community, which has already endured so much. It’s also an unconstitutional overreach that is the latest example of home rule being stripped away from Florida cities,” she said.

Meanwhile, a September poll from the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab shows half the city wants all memorials to the losing side in the Civil War gone. When asked about the city removing all Confederate monuments from public spaces, 50% of respondents said they back removal, 42% saying they oppose removal, and 8% wouldn’t say either way.

The split is along party lines, with 77% of Democrats in support and 73% of Republicans opposed to removal.

We have reached out to Mayor Deegan’s office to get their take on this legislation, and will add that once received.

Meanwhile, Gov. DeSantis’ office is not weighing in on the legislation just yet.

“Since this legislation is still subject to the legislative process (and therefore different iterations), the governor will decide on the merits of the bill in final form if and when it passes and is delivered to the governor’s office,” asserted Press Secretary Jeremy Redfern, who used language he’s used previously when asked about bills that haven’t passed yet.

Still, remarks DeSantis has made on the campaign trail suggest that he is taking a newly sympathetic look at preserving Confederate history, including reversal of one base renaming despite the ignominious military history of its former namesake.

In June, the Florida Governor said that the newly rechristened Fort Liberty in North Carolina should have its name changed back to honor Braxton Bragg, whose legacy as a rebel commander was undistinguished even by the markers of the rebel army.

“Here’s what I said with respect to Fort Bragg is, that’s an iconic base in this country. I didn’t even know it was a Civil War general,” said DeSantis, who graduated from Yale in 2001 with a B.A., magna cum laude in history.

“I don’t think most people knew it was a Civil War general. You just know you’ve been to Bragg, right? And they’re changing it for political correctness reasons. And so I don’t believe in doing it for political correctness reasons and that’s just kind of how we’re going to roll on it. And here’s the thing, you know, you learn from history, you don’t erase the history.”

Fort Bragg was renamed “Fort Liberty” earlier this year, on the recommendation of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Commission on the Naming of Items. The goal was to change the names of facilities “that commemorate the Confederate States of America or any person who served voluntarily with the Confederate States of America.”

Despite the limited scope of the DOD’s renaming, the Governor likened taking Bragg’s name off the fort to efforts to “take Abraham Lincoln off the statue down in Boston … take Teddy Roosevelt down in New York City” and “remove George Washington’s name from schools in San Francisco.”

“And that’s not, I think, what I want to see. I mean, I think you can look back at anybody and you could find flaws. But at the end of the day, you know, we had people that have done great things for this country,” DeSantis said.

“I’m not in a position to say that somehow I’m so much better than any of this. It’s a different time. People make mistakes. There’s different parts of our society, we look back and can say was a mistake. But this idea that we’re going to erase history, I just think, is fundamentally wrong, and we’re not going to do that.”

The installation’s former name honors Gen. Bragg, a North Carolinian, who was known for owning slaves and losing key Civil War battles that contributed to the Confederacy’s downfall.

A native of Warrenton, North Carolina, Bragg was in his position until 1863, when after a defeat at Chattanooga, he was removed from that lead role at his request and became a military advisor for Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Despite his relegation, he would go on to be the on-the-scene commander during Confederate defeats throughout the war, including a failed attempt to protect the port in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Rather than lead protection of the port, Bragg stayed behind at the fort away from the fray, to the consternation of the fort’s commander.

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