Capitol Offense: Reading the Florida Constitution

One of the things I’ve talked about recently is the widespread lack of knowledge about Florida politics in virtually every aspect of the system — from myself and others. It’s very difficult to cover politics in a system where they rules and key players aren’t very well known. One way I’m attempting to solve that problem is by regularly taking a look at the system of law in Florida by regularly writing a column that reads and examines part of the Florida Constitution, which was established in its current form in 1968. Today, I’ll look at the preamble and the first part of Article I, which is quite lengthy. First, the preamble:

We, the people of the State of Florida, being grateful to Almighty God for our constitutional liberty, in order to secure its benefits, perfect our government, insure domestic tranquility, maintain public order, and guarantee equal civil and political rights to all, do ordain and establish this constitution.

Standard constitutional stuff here. The reference to “Almighty God” in capital letters is a bit troubling. First it clearly shows a preference for religion over non-religion, but second, with a capital “Almighty,” it may also be directly referring to Bible-based religions, since that phrase, with that capitalization appears repeatedly in the Bible. I’m not sure if other religions use it the same way. Either way, it seems that this clearly violates the federal Constitution’s establishment clause.

Beyond that, the last on the list of constitutional goals: “guarantee equal civil and political rights to all,” would seem to nullify quite a bit of Republican-sponsored legislation in the state, including the state ban on gay adoption. Notice that the wording says “equal” civil rights to all, not just to straight people.

Article I of the Constitution is the Declaration of Rights, analogous to the federal Bill of Rights, only with 27 sections instead of just 10. Section 1:

All political power is inherent in the people. The enunciation herein of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or impair others retained by the people.

Somewhat of a repetition of the Ninth Amendment to the federal Constitution, clearly allowing for implied rights, meaning Floridians have other rights not specifically listed in Article I. Section 2:

All natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law and have inalienable rights, among which are the right to enjoy and defend life and liberty, to pursue happiness, to be rewarded for industry, and to acquire, possess and protect property; except that the ownership, inheritance, disposition and possession of real property by aliens ineligible for citizenship may be regulated or prohibited by law. No person shall be deprived of any right because of race, religion, national origin, or physical disability.

A few of the enumerations here are more specific than the federal Constitution, including the private property clause and the wording from the Declaration of Independence, which doesn’t appear in the Constitution. The “right to pursue happiness” clause makes many Republican proposals appear quite invalid as well. The wording here doesn’t say that “straight people” have this right, but all people. In direct contradiction of itself, this clause also has an anti-illegal immigrant clause, saying the government can deny illegal immigrants the right to own property. Section 3:

There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety. No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.

Standard freedom of religion clauses here, although the suspect phrase “public morals,” which is so vague as to have no meaning, appears here. Who gets to define those morals? They certainly aren’t defined in the constitution. Sounds like a loophole to punish people who disagree over things like sexuality and recreational drugs. I do like the explicit prohibition against government spending for religious organizations, something that doesn’t appear in the federal Constitution. Again, this clause is in direct contrast to Republican policies such as vouchers and religious license plates. Section 4:

Every person may speak, write and publish sentiments on all subjects but shall be responsible for the abuse of that right. No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press. In all criminal prosecutions and civil actions for defamation the truth may be given in evidence. If the matter charged as defamatory is true and was published with good motives, the party shall be acquitted or exonerated.

This section is pretty consistent with federal case law on the subject, although the first sentence is poorly worded and includes the suspect phrase “abuse of that right.” Again, how is this defined? There is some clarification in the last two sentences, but there is a lot of gray area within that wording. When conservatives whine about judicial activism and “legislating from the bench,” they make little sense, because phrases like this require such interpretation. You can’t punish people for abuse if you don’t know what abuse means. Conservatives only complain about such “abuse” when they disagree with it politically. Their side never engages in abuse. Section 5:

The people shall have the right peaceably to assemble, to instruct their representatives, and to petition for redress of grievances.

Repetition of several clauses of the federal First Amendment, with a little bit of additional language that is repetitive and probably unnecessary.

That’s it for this time, join me again next week and I’ll pick up with Article I, Section 6.

I’m Kenneth Quinnell and I approve this message.

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2 thoughts on “Capitol Offense: Reading the Florida Constitution

  1. Glad to see this Ken – it’s very important info like this gets more attention.

    There’s a great piece in the Florida constitution on providing public education which I wish more legislators would pay attention to. Article IX, Section 1:

    “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”

    “Adequate provision” is obviously the key phrase here. I highly doubt we’re meeting this standard.

  2. Thanks, Ray, I’ll work my way through the entire Constitution and then probably start in on the statutes, although probably not line by line like with the Constitution.