TALLAHASSEE – Leon County Circuit Judge Refused To Block State Law Banning So-called “Vaccine Passports,” Dismissing Sarasota Company’s Arguments That The Law Violates First Amendment Rights .
Circuit Judge Layne Smith’s ruling was a victory for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has led efforts to stop companies from requiring customers to prove they are vaccinated against COVID-19 — a problem which became known as requiring vaccine passports.
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Smith also separated from a South Florida federal judge, who in August sided with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings in a challenge to state law. In both cases, the plaintiffs argued that the law was an unconstitutional restriction on speech.
But Smith, in a six-page ruling Thursday, rejected First Amendment arguments from Bead Abode, a Sarasota hobby and craft store, and refused to issue an injunction against the law. Smith said the fundamental question in the case is whether the law restricts speech or regulates driving.
“The only question in court, and the only one the court decided, is whether (the law) shortens Bead Abode’s First Amendment right to free speech,” Smith wrote. “It’s not. Instead, the law regulates the conduct of the plaintiff.
Smith, who was appointed circuit judge by DeSantis after serving as a county judge, also stressed the authority of the legislature and said the law “ensures open markets.”
“Prohibiting companies from requiring customers to produce documentary proof of vaccination or recovery may or may not be a good idea,” he wrote. “Nonetheless, this decision rests solely with the Legislature and is subject to the approval or rejection of the voters at the ballot box.”
The Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in April, with the state threatening companies that violate it with fines. Bead Abode has closed since the start of the pandemic, although it sells products online and offers courses online.
Bead Abode made a plan to reopen, but wanted to require customers, many of whom are seniors, to show proof of vaccination to help prevent the spread of the virus.
“In the absence of the measure sought to prohibit the defendant (the State) from applying this clearly unconstitutional restriction based on content on protected speech, Bead Abode would be forced to choose between its commitment to the safety of its clients and crushing penalties for enforcing this law, ”wrote attorney Andrew Boyer, whose wife, Kirsten, owns the store, in the lawsuit.
In the decision, Smith wrote that he had “great respect” for U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams, who sided with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings in the federal lawsuit, but added that “this court must review the law and make your own decision “.
Williams’ August decision only applied to Norwegian. There she writes that the law is a “content-based restriction” on speaking because it targets documentation but allows companies to request further information from customers on issues such as vaccinations.
“Although companies cannot require customers to verify their vaccination status with ‘documents’, the law does not prohibit companies from verifying vaccination status in any other way (for example, orally)”, wrote Williams, who was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama. . “As a result, under (the law), companies could still ‘discriminate’ against unvaccinated people by adopting a vaccination requirement, which they could enforce by requiring an oral verification of vaccination status before entry or discouraging unvaccinated clients from entering by placing signs that read “clients only vaccinated” and “unvaccinated clients are not allowed”.
The state appealed Williams’ decision to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Court of Appeals.