On Friday, the Florida legislature wrapped up a session unlike any others of recent years. PEN America had a direct hand in making sure several “culture war” bills failed without becoming law, keeping censorship from infringing on free speech and free expression.

Floridians do not want, nor will we tolerate, censorship. There is a movement in Florida to protect our democracy that has needed support, connection, and cohesion. Since joining as PEN America’s inaugural Florida director, thanks to a campaign led by bestselling authors, we are doing all of that and more.

Let me share a bit more about what happened this session:

  • There were certainly harmful bills that made it through the Legislature, most troubling is a bill that targets college-level teachers, censoring their discussion about race and gender while prohibiting them from engaging in training about “identity politics”.  Another harmful and unconstitutional bill bans youth from social media. Yet, these bills are very likely to be challenged in the courts, where similar bills have met their demise.

  • Unlike the last few years, there is more good news than bad from this legislative session. Floridians are working together to take back our fundamental freedoms, and the courts are drawing lines in the sand for laws that so clearly cross the First Amendment threshold, such as in PEN America’s case in Escambia County.

  • PEN America’s opposition contributed to the failure of House Bill 757, which would have significantly lowered the bar for public figures to bring lawsuits against journalists who criticize them, undermining freedom of the press. Our direct discussions with the bill’s sponsor, along with the collaborative effort we shepherded with numerous groups from across the political spectrum, galvanized the powerful effort that stopped this bill from passing.

  • There were two other major free expression bills PEN America successfully advocated against that failed this year. House Bill 901 attempted to ban gay pride flags and other forms of protected speech, restricting “governmental entities” from displaying flags that have “a political viewpoint, including  . . . racial, sexual orientation and gender.” 

  • This year also saw a victory for free speech on campus. PEN America’s opposition, along with outcry from students and grassroots organizations, helped prevent SB 470 from any headway. This bill sought to deprive any student who “promoted” a federally recognized foreign terrorist organization of in-state tuition and state financial aid, without defining the term promotion or what sort of speech and expression might run afoul of such a statute.

A vital part of this movement included PEN America’s work to build large anti-censorship coalitions delivering letters and testimony to all members of the legislature, including letters against HB 3 and its Senate Amendment, HB 757, and SB 1372 and its companion bill in the House.

This year’s legislative session was set to be yet another disaster for free speech. But PEN America, and partners from across the state, spoke up and fought back. After years of putting up with authoritarian-type efforts that trample on Floridians’ constitutional rights, this legislative session marks a critical sea change for the protection of Florida’s democracy.

This session proved that Floridians have grown weary of censorship efforts and the war against public education, freedom of the press and basic rights, and that we are standing together to say “enough is enough.” PEN America Florida is proud to be on the front lines protecting our democracy and fundamental freedoms.