New “Stand Your Ground” Law Meets Opposition from NAACP, Others

A newly proposed Stand Your Ground Law that passed first the Florida senate and now the house has moved back to the senate for finishing touches before heading to the Governor’s desk. The new law will shift the burden of proof from defendants who are required to prove self defense under current judicial law to the prosecution, who will need to prove self defense did not occur. The changing circumstances will make it easier for defendants in murder/manslaughter cases, particularly those involving a firearm, to claim self defense as a means to beat charges.

The Florida NAACP and other organizations are mounting strong opposition to the bill, claiming that is pushes things too far. The NAACP has released multiple statements claiming that the current application of the law is already done in a racially biased manner. Other groups, including gun safety advocates normally allied with the NRA, are saying the new law will give criminals too much leeway to claim self defense when they commit a crime with a gun.

Evelyn Foxx, head of the Alachua County branch of the NAACP, had nothing good about the bill to say either. “This law, adding to what’s already on the books, would be even worse for African Americans and people of color,” she said. Press releases by the Florida NAACP included statistics that 34% of homocides involving a black victim and white shooter were deemed justified under the existing law. The fear is that this is due to a racial bias in the court system, and that strengthening the law will exacerbate the problem and allow even more killers to go free.

Supporters of the bill say that this specific change to the law code is long overdue. Republican lawmakers point to the constitution and the notion that every citizen accused of the crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is always on the prosecution and state in every other instance except for claims of self defense. They feel this is a mistake that this new Stand Your Ground law will finally rectify.

Large Crowd, Small Protest for Ben Shapiro

Conservative political commentator and columnist Ben Shapiro spoke at the University of Florida on Monday, April 3 after being invited by Young Americans for Freedom. Ben Shapiro is the former editor of Breitbart and the current editor of The Daily Wire, another conservative news publication for which he also contributes. Ben’s appearance on campus threw fire on the ongoing debate between students who say they are advocates of free speech and others who contend that they are fighting hate speech.

Ben Shapiro’s appearance is thanks in no small part to UF sophomore Daniel Weldon. Ever since founding a YAF chapter at UF in March of last year, Weldon has wanted to bring the conservative speaker to campus.

“I think it speaks volumes that even if the majority of people don’t agree with Ben Shapiro, they want to hear his thoughts, they want to see this kind of speech on campus,” Weldon said. The conservative political science major claims that YAF represents a silent majority of college students with conservative ideals that have had their speech and ideas suppressed by a loud liberal minority. Pointing out that a conservative speaker hasn’t been to UF in a few years, Weldon was able to get UF’s ACCENT program to cough up the $20 thousand required to get Ben Shapiro to appear. It’s a rule that public universities must fund liberal and conservative groups equally, and a slew of liberal appearances in the intervening years meant it was time for a big name, or maybe a few big name conservatives to arrive on campus.

On the day of the event, hundreds of students lined up outside University Auditorium to grab tickets, which were quickly sold out within a half hour of the box office opening. When the doors to the venue did open at 6:30 p.m., hundreds of students and Gainesville residents hoping to score an empty seat without a ticket were inundated by a group of 30-50 protesters holding signs and yelling chants at those in line. According to Weldon, they were there to stifle free speech.

Some protesters, however, disputed this claim. Timothy Tia, a member of the protest, adamantly denied that they were there to stifle anyone’s speech. “I think most of us agree he has a right to speak at the University [of Florida,]” Tia said. “We want to show trans students, palestinian students and muslim students that we support them.” While some protesters did indeed claim that Ben Shapiro was spouting dangerous hate speech that needed to be subject to censor, Tia claimed the vast majority of protesters were simply showing solidarity with minority and at risk groups targeted by Ben Shapiro’s rhetoric.

Regardless of which side one takes, it’s unlikely the dispute will be solved in the near future. More clashes between the ideologies of free speech vs hate speech are inevitable, as Weldon has promised that YAF will be holding many more events just like this in the future.

To see what Ben Shapiro spoke about at the event, you can see my Live Tweeting session from the front row HERE.

A radio version of this story was broadcasted at 89.1 WUFT-FM.

 

Disputes continue between Gainesville, local towing company

Ultimate Towing of Gainesville, a company that is not new to controversy, is once again in hot water with Gainesville residents and authorities as complaints mount against the company. District City Commissioner Adrien Hayes-Santos has clashed with the towing company over spotters which contribute to what he and other Gainesville residents have characterized as predatory practices by the company. The most recent clash has the Gainesville Police Department investigating Ultimate Towing over its recent decision not to accept credit card payments, a move city commission says violates city ordinance.

Ultimate Towing has since claimed to have reinstated the ability to pay through credit card. However, they also dispute that refusing to allow credit card payments violates city ordinance. Further violation has been threatened by the GDP with the termination of Ultimate Towing’s business license and the ability to tow trespassers. The ordinance requires towing fees be payable by cash, credit card, and/or debit card. Focusing on the “or” has been the focal point of Ultimate Towing’s argument against being penalized, claiming as long as debit card payments are available they shouldn’t have to accept credit cards.

Ultimate Towing has a history of being on the bad side of Gainesville officials and authorities. It’s previous owner was arrested for stealing scooters and staging them as illegally parked so they they could be towed. The company was also briefly suspended from conducting business in 2011 for violating policies with what city officials then called predatory actions.

Hayes-Santos has stated his goal is to protect the residents of Gainesville from a company that takes advantage and bleeds customers/victims for profit. Ultimate Towing stopped accepting credit cards in response to criticism for its spotting practice, which had led to a large increase in owners of towed vehicles disputing payment for their impounded cars. Complaints reached commissioner Hayes-Santos through email, phone, facebook and reddit about doing something about the towing service. Taking down the company seems like a mission Hayes-Santos intends to fulfill.

Gainesville Impacted by GRU, GREC Deal

Gainesville Regional Utilities is about to close a deal with Gainesville Renewable Energy Center to purchase the facility for $750 million. Currently GRU and the City of Gainesville is locked into a contract with the biomass GREC facility to the tune of $70 million a year. The contract would last the next 27 years and cost Gainesville approximately $2.1 billion dollars during that time. However, despite the contract GRU has been getting power from cheaper sources and has been mostly sidelining the biomass plant, leading to this deal. GRU hopes to use the facility to replace decommissioned plants and avoid paying for power it doesn’t use.

After both sides agreed to the deal, it has now gone to the Utility Advisory Board and the city commission, which hasn’t ultimately agreed to the deal yet either. Concerns over the price tag the city would muster, as well as the time frame being imposed on city commissioners to consider the deal are factors. After the deal was finalized, the city commission is now being asked to look over and sign the resulting memorandum of understanding by April 21st, which at this point is less than a month away.

GRU has repeatedly released statements justifying both the purchase and conditions attached. GRU has claimed that the buyout could save Gainesville $650 million dollars over the next 30 years, and that everyday the deal is not finalized costs the city $70 thousand in fees to GREC. Gainesville citizens have been told by GRU that the buyout will also reduce customer bills by 8 to 10 percent.

Commissioners Harvey Budd and Todd Chase have each indicated misgivings they have towards signing the memorandum. Todd Chase will no longer be in office after the deadline GRU is attempting to set on the City Commission and will not be able to sign any contracts or ordinances regarding the buyout after April 20th. Mayor Lauren Poe continues to support the deal and attempted to get City Commission to vote on the deal Thursday, April 6th.

Regardless of the outcome, Gainesville residents are upset at being forced into this predicament in the first place.

 

Alachua County Election Results, Low Turn-Out Concerns

On March 14th, Alachua County held the Gainesville Regular Election. The elections determined who would be representing Gainesville City Commission districts 2 and 3, as well as who would hold at-large seat 2. Harvey Ward Jr. won district 2 in a three-way race while David Arreola and Helen K. Warren defeated their opponents in the race for district 3 and at-large seat 2, respectively.

All the elections were non-partisan races. This meant that two democrats could be running against each other, or two republicans, three libertarians etc. The most contested of the races was the battle for at-large seat 2 between the winner and incumbent Helen K. Warren and challenger Jenn Powell. Powell gained attention in the community as an outspoken activist for Bernie Sanders and other progressive causes in Alachua County. The volunteer force she had cultivated for the presidential campaign in Gainesville manifested itself into support for her own campaign. Powell entered the race less than a month before the election, yet earned over 45% of the vote with around 4,600 votes cast in her favor. Despite her loss Powell told The Gainesville Sun that she would use her influence to hold Warren’s feet to the fire and make sure she keeps election promises.

Each race brought its own surprises that no one in Gainesville seemed to see coming. Namely Harvey Ward Jr. defeating both his opponents outright in the fight for district 2. Because it was a three way race, a run off election was expected as it seemed unlikely any of the candidates would breach the 50% mark required to win the commission seat. However, Ward Jr. had an amazing showing, with his victory being the first called, mustering 50.7% of the vote to defeat opponents Perry Clawson and Sheryl Eddie.

The third and final race we’ll be discussing was a surprise for less positive reasons. Despite being the most expensive of the three races in the Gainesville Regular Election, district 3 suffered from the lowest turnout with around 3,000 votes giving newcomer Arreola the victory over Craig Carter. Arreola claimed 66% to Carter’s 33%, but it’s hard for the win to be seen as voters having high expectations for his abilities. According to the Gainesville Sun the two candidates spent the most out out of the seven running and gained the least bang for their dollar.

This signals to a much larger problem facing Alachua County. Despite the claim from the Board of Elections that more voters participated this election compared to previous years (Which is true) this doesn’t take into account that Gainesville’s population increased over that period of time as well. When taken as a percentage of eligible voters, participation has been steadily decreasing in Alachua County. As can be easily ascertained from looking at their website, turnout was just under 12%. It’s hard to be proud of those numbers, but it’s hard to say what the Board of Elections can do in the future to increase participation.

Gainesville Clinic Wins Abortion Lawsuit

On Thursday February 16th, the Florida Supreme Court blocked an abortion law that had been challenged in court by a Gainesville Women’s clinic. The law had required that women seeking an abortion had to wait 24 hours and visit their doctors twice before they could undergo the procedure. The Bread and Roses Women’s Health Center, located in Gainesville, challenged the law in court soon after it passed the Florida House in June 2015. The clinic was aided in the lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union whose attorney argued the case on their behalf.

The Judges blocked the law in a 4-2 decision on the grounds that it violated a constitutional right to privacy. The Florida constitution possesses a clause that states “every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life” which formed the basis for the court’s ruling. The dissenting opinion on the court was that a 24 hour wait restriction didn’t constitute a substantial intrusion into a person’s privacy.

While abortion activists are claiming the ruling as a victory, it’s not the end of the law or anti-abortion legislation. The law will fall to another appeals court for further review while some republican lawmakers have announced a slew of new anti-abortion bills to March’s legislative session. The ACLU of Florida in turn is preparing to challenge these pieces of legislation in court as they make it through the Florida House and Senate.

The law will sit in the lower appeals court until a petitioner requests a hearing on a permanent injunction. If granted, it’s likely the law will be permanently struck down in the same 4-2 decision as today’s ruling. If you would like to read the ruling it has been made available as a 59 page PDF outlining each side’s arguments and the opinions of the majority and dissenting Judges.

 

Gainesville Politician Faces Legal Challenge to Election

District 4 City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos will be in court Monday, February 13th for a one day non-jury trial that will determine the legitimacy of his candidacy. A newcomer to politics, Hayes-Santos won with over 80% of vote in the March, 2016 election for the vacant District 4 Commissioner seat. His opponent in that race, Jim Konish filed a lawsuit against Hayes-Santos shortly before the election alleging he did not meet the residency requirements to run for that seat.

Hayes-Santos has acted as commissioner over an area that includes the University of Florida campus for several months. He has supported the Connected Gainesville initiative to improve the speed and scope of internet in Gainesville through GRU. Hayes-Santos made improving internet and utilities one of the main focuses of his campaign, and since the election has been aggressively pursuing and crafting policy to provide internet access to a developing city that sorely needs it.

If ruled against, it is unclear if Hayes-Santos will be removed from the position or how the courts will decide to deal with the political dilemma. Hayes-Santos has recently been involved with a memorandum between Gainesville and the University of Florida to collaborate officially on development projects including transportation, housing and environmental protection. This legal challenge poses the final hurdle to Hayes-Santos’ ability to pursue the envisioned promises of the campaign.

Hayes-Santos has denied the allegations and claims he has met the requirements of residency. As the plaintiff, Konish is identified as a duly qualified candidate for Gainesville City Commissioner. It can be speculated he would attempt to assume the position if the courts ruled in his favor in lieu of a special election, as he was the only other candidate running against Hayes-Santos. Also listed as defendants are the Supervisor of Elections, the City of Gainesville Election Canvassing Board, and the Alachua County Board of Canvassers. Both sides will deliver testimonies in court on Monday before Judge Monica Brasington.