ATLANTA (CN) — The 11th Circuit upheld a federal ruling Friday afternoon, refusing to dismiss a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by a deaf rights advocacy group over Florida's refusal to provide captioning for live and archived video recordings of legislative proceedings.
In a 25-page ruling, the three-judge panel upheld a 2018 ruling by a federal judge in favor of the National Association of the Deaf, finding that the state's failure to provide captioning for legislative proceedings could violate deaf citizens' fundamental right to participate in the democratic process.
The National Association of the Deaf and Eddie Sierra, a deaf Florida resident and disability rights activist, alleged in an April 2018 complaint that Florida's refusal to provide closed captioning for videos of legislative proceedings in the Florida Senate and House of Representatives violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in services, programs and activities provided by local and state government entities.
The Florida Senate and House livestream legislative proceedings on their websites. Although Sierra and the National Association of the Deaf sent a letter in 2017 requesting closed captioning for the videos, they claim in their complaint that the state never responded or provided the captioning.
Florida State University, which is named as a co-defendant in the complaint, also livestreams legislative proceedings on its website without closed captioning.
The complaint alleges that by failing to provide deaf and hearing impaired people with an accessible means to observe legislative proceedings, the state is violating their right to "meaningfully participate in the democratic process of self-government."
Florida has argued that providing closed captioning on its platforms would be too costly.
In June 2018, U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro rejected the state's arguments and denied its motions to dismiss the complaint. Ungaro ruled that the state is not entitled to sovereign immunity from the lawsuit, a protection which shields state governments from civil liability in federal court.
The 11th Circuit affirmed the district court's opinion Friday.
"Here, deaf citizens are being denied the opportunity to monitor the legislative actions of their representatives because Defendants have refused to provide captioning for legislative proceedings," U.S. Circuit Judge Beverly Martin, an Obama appointee, wrote on behalf of the panel.
"Without access to information about the legislative actions of their representatives, deaf citizens cannot adequately 'petition the Government for a redress of grievances,' because they cannot get the information necessary to hold their elected officials accountable for legislative acts," she wrote.
"This type of participation in the political process goes to the very core of the political system embodied in our Constitution. To say no fundamental right is at issue here would be to deny the underpinnings of our democratic republic," the ruling continues.
A representative for Florida Senate President Bill Galvano did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday evening. Circuit Judges Gerald Tjoflat, a Ford appointee, and William Traxler Jr., a Clinton appointee, rounded out the panel.
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