Florida’s state senate is currently considerating a controversial new bill that would enable defenders of Confederate monuments and other historical property to sue over their damage or removal.
The state’s Community Affairs Committee, which is led by a Republican majority, backed bill SB 1096 on April 5, a piece of proposed legislation that would allow civilians to sue for three times the value of the repairs to damaged or displaced public items “dedicated to a historical person, entity, event or series of events and that honours 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.”
While the bill does not specifically mention Confederate monuments and markers, opposing legislators have said it is clearly aimed at defending them by allowing civilians to take legal action against local governments.
The bill pushes back against growing public disdain against symbols celebrating the white men who died during the American Civil War while defending the Southern states, many of whom wanted to expand slavery into the western territories. In addition to statues, obelisks, arches, and fountains, the bill covers plaques, banners, and flags. It would allow civilians to sue local governments.
In 2020, Confederate monuments in the US and in Europe were the site of mass protests and national removal efforts after the murder of George Floyd. Demonstrators alleged the monuments promoted white supremacy by raising racist figures to hero status. On June 9, the city of Jacksonville removed a bronze topper honoring a division of the Confederacy known as the Jacksonville Light Infantry.
Lori Berman, one of the two senators who voted against the bill during a hearing of the Community Affairs Committee, told Hyperallergic, “I think this bill is absolutely a response to the removal of Confederate statues, no question.”
Opponents to the protests and removal efforts have said the Confederate monuments deserve safeguarding, and often argue that the statues and other items represent “cultural heritage.”
Under the Historical Monuments and Protection Act, the Florida bill would allow civilians to sue for three times the value of the repairs to any damaged or displaced monuments, following a term in US law known as “treble damages.”
Jonathan Martin, a Republican senator representing Fort Myers and sponsor of the bill, told the Miami Herald, “What I like about these memorials in public places is that everybody has the opportunity to see who we were…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.”
“We don’t build monuments around the sins of individuals, we build them because of something great that they did,” Martin added. “I want to teach my kids that despite your imperfections, you can still do something great.”
According to the Atlanta History Center, Confederate monuments were not erected with this idea in mind during the three main periods they were installed across the US. After funeral purposes, the second phase of monuments erected in the 1890s through the 1930s “coincided with the expansion of the white supremacist policies of the Jim Crow era,” including justification of the Confederate cause in favor of slavery.
The third phase of Confederate monuments occured when they were used as a rallying point for proponents of segregation after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. In plain terms, they were erected in response to the Civil Rights movement, something Fort Lauderdale state senator Rosalind Osgood pointed out to the Miami Herald: “People that look like me really are offended by a lot of the Confederate monuments,” she said.
Prior to Community Affairs, the Florida Senate’s Governmental Rights and Accountability Committee also voted in favor of SB 1096. In order for the current version of the proposed bill to reach the floor of the Florida State Senate, it must also be approved by the Rules Committee.