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Senators back renaming FSU law school building

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Senate panel on Tuesday pushed forward a measure that would allow Florida State University to strip the name of former Florida Supreme Court Justice B.K. Roberts from a law-school building because of pro-segregation opinions written by Roberts.

While the move by the Senate Education Committee received overwhelming support from the public and lawmakers, Sen. Dennis Baxley, the lone no vote, said the measure was a "dangerous path" toward erasing the state's history.

“We are being politically correct erasers to try and make it say something different," Baxley, R-Ocala, said. "It is what it is, and there is plenty of repentance that has been done and will be done and should be done for things that were wrong in our country."

Roberts left a troublesome legacy when he wrote pro-segregation opinions in the 1950s. The opinions, including one that refused to obey a U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow a black man to enroll in the University of Florida College of Law, prompted an FSU advisory panel last year to recommend his name be removed from the FSU law-school building.

“To keep the name of B.K. Roberts on the law-school building would continue to honor someone whose decisions and actions do not reflect Florida State University’s values or the rule of law,” FSU President John Thrasher wrote last year in response to the advisory panel recommendation.

To change the building name, FSU needs approval from the Legislature because the name was included in a 1973 law.

Tuesday’s vote by the Senate Education Committee was the first legislative committee to advance that effort and came as part of a broader bill (SPB 7076) that would lead to the university system’s Board of Governors establishing regulations for naming campus facilities.

Nearly 200 other university buildings across the state have been given names through legislation.

Current FSU law-school students supported the bill, saying it was embarrassing to work out of a building named after someone who contributed to the state’s segregationist history.

But Baxley, an FSU graduate, said “we do not know all that happened into putting people’s names up, and they are being smudged publicly when they are not even here to defend themselves.”

Thrasher, a former senator and state House speaker, last year recommended that the contributions Roberts made to the university should be recognized in an “appropriate space and manner within the law school.” But Thrasher said Roberts’ name should be removed from the law-school building.

“I’m here to give you a warning,” Baxley said. “You start down this path, and someone is going to be tearing down something that represents something to you, it may not be what it represents to others, but we are destroying our own artifacts of our own history.”

Roberts helped found the law school at FSU and develop the public-defender system, Thrasher said. Roberts served on the Supreme Court from 1949 to 1976 and died in 1999.

Lori Berman, D-Lantana, supported the bill because she likes the idea of creating a process that will give colleges and universities the chance to become a more “welcoming environment.”

“I think that is where the decisions should be made,” Berman said. “I do think that the students and the faculty of those schools should be responsible for making the decisions for what they are comfortable with.”

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said history should not be forgotten but indicated that changes need to be considered.

“We have to provide for and make sure that we include a different world in a different era now, which is … certainly not perfect, but moving toward a more diverse America that I am proud to live in,” Cruz said.