The First Amendment has protected advocacy journalism in America since the founding of this country. Unfortunately for press freedom, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has stomped on that tradition by declaring his administration to be big government journalism regulators, similar to authoritarians in places like Venezuela or Cuba.
As a critic of the governor, I have personally gotten a taste of DeSantis’ tinpot authoritarianism.
In July 2020, my activism made national news when I confronted Florida’s governor on what I consider to be his disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with his misleading the public about the impact of the virus. The Sunshine State has a staggering death toll of over 75,000 people,
Due to my political views and activities, the state’s largest law enforcement agency, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) opened a criminal intelligence case against me without a criminal predicate. That’s when they started surveilling my social media while sharing my name, photo, and vehicle information with other police agencies in the state, in addition to other personal information.
The surveillance document from FDLE states that “the below individual has no history of violence” when referring to me. What is it that merits my surveillance, then?
Merely that I organize protests and later post them on my social media accounts for the public to see. We uncovered 83 pages of electronic correspondence between FDLE employees showing how they track my social media metrics and how many times my posts have been viewed and shared.
And they aren’t just targeting me. Attached to the surveillance document targeting me is a redacted list labeled “associates,” which has columns with headers that include photos, names, and comments.
The FDLE refuses to identify the individuals in this list they are surveilling simply for having an association with me, and even acquiring this redacted list was a frustrating process requiring nine public records lawsuits spearheaded by Florida investigative journalist Grant Stern.
It is disturbing that Florida law enforcement agencies are secretly surveilling government critics and those associated with them. Back in April, I was detained, and after 30 minutes, removed from the Port of Miami and issued a trespass warning without being given an explanation after parking my vehicle in a public lot. That day, DeSantis was participating in a publicly funded press conference inside one of the parking garages to announce a lawsuit against cruise ship companies that required passengers to be vaccinated.
When I asked the police officers who stopped me what the reason for my being detained and issued a trespass warning was, they refused to tell me, and when I noted that the Port of Miami is a public place, one of the officers replied, “not for you.” I suspected that they had my vehicle information because there was no other way that the police would have known to detain me when I parked my vehicle, a fact which was later confirmed through an incident report that we obtained through a public records request.
That incident was the catalyst for us investigating this surveillance of critics of Ron DeSantis, guilty of no crime other than merely being an annoyance to the governor. Is it justified that our taxpayer dollars are being used to monitor the social media accounts of citizens merely exercising their First Amendment rights?
The distaste DeSantis’ office has for me is so strong that they have blocked me from receiving from the governor’s office press mailing list, which is paid for by us, the taxpayers. This is particularly questionable considering previous judicial precedent barring elected officials from blocking constituents on social media and other platforms.
This is one of the reasons why I’m suing Ron DeSantis. After removing me from his press mailing list (which is funded by us, the tax payers) his team has blocked me from receiving his press releases. This is what they spend your tax dollars on and how afraid they are of critics. pic.twitter.com/NsfVYxQm4a
— Thomas Kennedy (@tomaskenn) June 23, 2022
I’m not the only advocate and journalist that has been on the wrong side of DeSantis’ censorship tactics. Earlier this year a member of the National Association of Black Journalists named Ben Frazier was arrested at one of DeSantis’ publicly funded press events in Jacksonville. Frazier was identified by the governor’s staff before the press conference got underway and asked to leave, which he refused to do as he was not being disruptive and was given no satisfactory explanation for why he was being asked to leave. Frazier was promptly forced out of his wheelchair and placed in handcuffs. How he was identified prior to the event begs the question as to whether he is also subject to the sort of surveillance by the FDLE that I have been placed under.
CNN correspondent Rosa Flores was subjected to DeSantis’ anger when attempting to ask questions about Florida’s disastrous statewide vaccine registration rollout. Inquiring about counties that were ill-equipped for the traffic they received on the websites and phone lines, Flores was aggressively interrupted by DeSantis before she could finish her question and repeatedly berated in front of her colleagues.
In another instance, a Florida-based reporter Brendan Farrington was targeted by DeSantis’ spokesperson Christina Pushaw. After a bombshell story for the Associated Press that detailed how one of DeSantis’ multimillion-dollar donors invests in a company making the COVID-19 treatment drug Regeneron that was promoted heavily in Florida, Pushaw encouraged her thousands of Twitter followers to target Farrington by tweeting his article and writing “drag them” in a now-deleted post. She also wrote in other tweets that if Farrington didn’t change his story, she would “put you on blast” and retweeted a message that said “Light. Them. Up.” in reference to the Associated Press, leading to the publication publicly urging the DeSantis administration to stop the harassment of their staff.
The Executive Editor of Occupy Democrats is Grant Stern. He suffered painful injuries, including a traumatic left knee injury requiring 26 doctor appointments over a six-month period, when he was physically thrown out of Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s press conference in Miami in which Ron DeSantis also made an appearance. His crime?
Daring to ask the House Republican leader why he didn’t support the January 6th commission.
Most recently, I was thrown out, along with Grant Stern, from a Ron DeSantis press conference at Miami-Dade college before the event even got underway. This was for no apparent reason as we were not being disruptive.
The pattern is clear, if journalists, advocates, or constituents pose any critical questions to DeSantis, he will retaliate forcefully and thoroughly.
I have filed a federal lawsuit against Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to send them a clear message that these attacks against independent journalists and media critical of him and his allies can’t and won’t be tolerated. We should reject this un-American attack on journalistic pursuits.
Thomas Kennedy is an elected Democratic National Committee member representing Florida. Twitter: @tomaskenn.