A statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, that has since been taken down (photo via Flickr)

A new Florida bill would make local governments financially liable for removing public statues. The “Historical Monuments and Memorials Protection Act” would allow civilians to sue for three times the memorial’s repair or replacement cost.

“I think this bill is absolutely a response to the removal of Confederate statues, no question,” State Senator Lori Berman told Hyperallergic, adding that after 13 years in the legislature, this was the first time she had seen a bill like this. She was one of two senators to vote against the bill during the April 5 Community Affairs hearing in the Florida State Senate. The other was Senator Rosalind Osgood, who is Black.

Confederate statues have been removed en masse in the last few years, especially in 2020, but Florida still has dozens on display. Past legal attempts to block the removal of Confederate monuments in the state have hinged on freedom of speech and technicalities such as town ordinances, but have ultimately been struck down. The new law would provide a streamlined means to block statues’ removal.

“In recent years, Confederate memorials have been the most controversial and talked about memorials subject to removal,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Florida State Director Jonathan Webber said at the hearing. “To many Floridians, [Confederate statues] represent one of the cruelest periods in American history and are symbolic reminders of the racist social hierarchy that can still be felt today.”

Republican State Senator Jonathan Martin, who introduced the bill, defended it on the grounds that public monuments teach Floridians about history and cited the notion of the “imperfect person” (referring to the Founding Fathers who enslaved people).

The proposal allows for monuments to be removed for construction or transportation projects as long as they are relocated within the same county or town and displayed with the same “prominence” and “honor.” The bill could also prohibit or limit the addition of contextualizing information to statues: “A plaque, sign, picture, notice, or any other object used to convey information may not be placed on a memorial” without the approval of the Secretary of State.

Martin filed Senate Bill 1096 on February 22. It passed the state’s Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee on March 15 and the Community Affairs Committee on April 5. Both votes fell along party lines. Now, the proposal will move to the Committee on Rules, which has a Republican majority, and then onto a general Senate vote before it appears on Governor Ron DeSantis’s desk. An accompanying House Bill to enact the legislation was introduced on March 7. Republicans hold both the House and Senate in Florida.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.