Student and civil rights groups are suing the commission investigating the 2018 South Florida high school massacre, saying it illegally adjourned a recent meeting before the public could speak and held the meeting at an inaccessible location.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Tallahassee against the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission on behalf of March for Our Lives Florida, the Florida Student Power Network, Dream Defenders and individual students.
The SPLC said in the lawsuit that the commission violated state law when it adjourned its October meeting nearly three hours before its agenda said public comments would be heard. The lawsuit said the commissioners knew several students and others from the groups planned to comment and, by adjourning early, deprived them of their right to be heard.
Also, the SPLC said the commission violated a state law requiring that meetings be held in accessible locations by holding its October session at a resort 30 miles (nearly 50 kilometers) outside Orlando that charges up to $32 for parking and cannot be reached by public transportation.
The 15-member commission typically meets at an arena near Fort Lauderdale that doesn't charge participants for parking and is on bus routes. The commission was formed after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting that left 14 students and three staff members dead.
“After finding out I would not be able to speak at the meeting, I was infuriated,” March for Our Lives Florida member Kinsey Akers said in a statement. The group advocates for tighter gun laws. “I could not believe the Commission would go to such a measure to silence the people they claim to be protecting.”
An attorney for the commission declined comment. The commission is charged with investigating the massacre's causes and making recommendations to prevent future shootings. Members include law enforcement leaders, school board members, a legislator and the fathers of two slain students. The voting members are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.
The lawsuit complains that none of the current members are minorities and students have never been appointed. They allege some of its recommendations, such as requiring armed guards at all public schools and allowing districts to arm trained teachers, have made schools less safe. Those recommendations were adopted by the Legislature.
“Evidence shows that more guns lead to more deaths. We need voices on the Commission who can speak to these issues,” Akers said.
Barbara Petersen, president emeritus of the First Amendment Foundation and an expert on the state's open meeting laws, said it is unclear whether the commission violated statutes by adjourning early. Her group is not involved in the lawsuit.
She argued, however, that the commission had a moral obligation to hear from the public, particularly given why it was formed. She said members should have adjourned and then come back to hear comments.
“There is a very high public interest in their decisions, particularly given the horrible, horrific tragedy that happened,” Petersen said.