Activist Thomas Kennedy sues DeSantis for surveilling him and preventing him from attending events

Over the years, Miami-based political activist Thomas Kennedy has been known to disrupt Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis events with cries of disapproval and made headlines when he called DeSantis an “embarrassment.” during a press conference in 2020 for its response to COVID-19. But last year, Kennedy learned via a public records request that following these incidents, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE ) had placed him on a “situational awareness” list, called him a “known agitator” and was monitoring him in an attempt to steer him away from DeSantis, his elected representative.

Now, in a lawsuit filed June 15 in federal court against DeSantis, the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County and FDLE Acting Commissioner Mark Glass, Kennedy alleges the government violated his constitutional rights to the freedom of expression, due process and equal protection. under the law by placing him under “situational awareness” and excluding him from press conferences. Kennedy seeks nominal damages and primarily seeks declaratory judgment. Above all, he is seeking access to FDLE files on him and his alleged associates in order to determine the extent of government surveillance and change Florida policies regarding access to public meetings.

“If the argument is that I’ve been disruptive in the past, I object because we should be able to be disruptive if we’re paying the governor’s salary,” Kennedy said. new times. “For taxpayer-funded events, it is not in the interest of transparency and freedom of the press to restrict public access, especially in the so-called Sunshine State where you have laws on the sun for open government.”

In April 2021, Kennedy traveled to PortMiami to attend a press conference where DeSantis discussed his intention to sue the federal government over its COVID-induced cruise travel ban. But Kennedy had barely parked his car when Miami-Dade police officers pulled him over and barred him from entering the event. The speed of the officers looked suspicious to Kennedy – as if they had been expecting him.

Kennedy and Occupy Democrats editor Grant Stern filed a public records request and obtained 83 pages of documents that revealed FDLE called Kennedy a “known agitator” and tipped off local police about him before the PortMiami event. FDLE agents also appear to have tracked Kennedy’s social media, car, address, and a list of his alleged associates as early as July 2020.

“As soon as I learned that the police were looking for Thomas’ car, my instincts as a reporter told me it was more than just a trespassing case,” Stern said. New times. “It took nine trials to substantiate this hunch and prove that the governor’s office waged a high-profile censorship campaign against him for his social media posts. If he doesn’t prevail in his trial, then the freedom of speech does not exist in Florida.”

“If he doesn’t prevail in his case, then free speech doesn’t exist in Florida.”

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FDLE’s filing on Kennedy notes that he has “no history of violence” but is known to lead direct protest actions such as the “sleeping dragons” protest maneuver, which involves protesters handcuffing their arms together inside PVC pipes to make it difficult for the police to move. their.

In June 2021, during a DeSantis press conference at the National Guard Armory in Miami, Kennedy witnessed Miami police and military reviewing FDLE documents related to him. Photos reviewed by new times shows two military officers and two Miami police officers examining a clipboard containing photos of Kennedy’s face and personal information. The document included the faces of additional people whose identities could not be discerned from the photos.

Kennedy included the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County in the lawsuit because he believes they are in possession of FDLE’s files on him.

“In this case, Governor DeSantis and the other defendants are not only discriminating against the plaintiff’s speech based on content or the plaintiff’s point of view, they have also added it to a ‘no entry’ list based on content. or from the perspective of the plaintiff’s speech,” reads Kennedy’s complaint, which has been embedded at the end of this article.

Kennedy, who has written numerous opinion columns for the Sentinel of the Sun, Latino Rebels and Occupy Democrats, is listed as an opinion columnist for Occupy Democrats. In his lawsuit, Kennedy identifies himself as a journalist and member of the press who possessed credentials to attend press conferences held by the governor.

Howard Wasserman, a First Amendment lawyer and professor at Florida International University, recounts new times that government officials are authorized to limit access to press conferences to certain members of the press, unless the event is a public forum. Florida does not generally limit the definition of the press to exclude opinion columnists, Wasserman says, but government officials are allowed to exclude certain people from press events as long as their reasoning does not follow from what that person has written. .

“They may impose certain restrictions on who is allowed to attend the press conference, but those restrictions must be neutral in perspective and content,” Wasserman says. “It can’t be based on things he writes and says about DeSantis.”

Kennedy considers himself an “advocacy journalist” who writes to advance a political cause and claims he was persecuted because his views criticized the governor.

“Just because you’re in the partisan press doesn’t mean you’re not in the press,” Kennedy argues.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to new times‘ sent a request for comment via email.

Jennifer C. Burleigh