Florida Anti-Riot Law ‘Violates the First Amendment,’ Says Court in Scathing Rebuke of Gov. Ron DeSantis
Enforcement of Florida’s “Combating Public Disorder Act” has been partially blocked by a federal judge, who appeared to agree with those challenging the “anti-riot” law that it was unfairly targeted at black Floridians and people protesting racial injustice.
Challengers to the law argued that it had a chilling effect on free speech and protest in the state.
Lawyers for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis countered that there had been no such chilling effect—why, just look at how black residents were out protesting on June 19 this past summer, they said, pointing to a flyer that billed itself as a “Juneteenth Black Joy Celebration” at a community park in West Palm Beach.
This mockery of an argument didn’t go over so well with the court, which scolded DeSantis for having “conflated a community celebration of a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery with a protest.”
“If Governor DeSantis included this particular post to imply that any gathering of Black people in a public space is a de facto protest, Plaintiffs’ concerns about the how the statute’s new definition of ‘riot’ will be enforced are indeed well-founded,” wrote Chief Judge Mark Eaton Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida last week. “It should go without saying that a public gathering of Black people celebrating ‘Black joy’ and release from bondage does not automatically equate to a protest.”
In a decision that opens by detailing Florida’s history of using anti-riot laws “to suppress activities threatening the state’s Jim Crow status quo,” Walker issued a preliminary injunction against DeSantis and several county sheriffs enforcing the new definition of rioting ensconced in Florida’s House Bill 1.
The law—proposed by DeSantis following racial justice protests last summer and enacted in April 2021, just before the verdict in George Floyd’s murder was handed down—stipulates that someone “commits a riot if he or she willfully participates in a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons, acting with a common intent to assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct,” and this results in “injury to another person…damage to property…or imminent danger of injury to another person or damage to property.” The plaintiffs in this case—including the Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP Branches, and several other groups—say this new definition could criminalize not just people acting violently but anyone who shows up at a protest or rally where violence happens to break out.
The “overbroad and vague” nature of the law could subject “non-violent protestors to criminal liability for exercising protected rights to speech and assembly,” the groups argued.
Evidence they provided to the court establishes “that their members have engaged in self-censoring for fear of the challenged statute’s enforcement against them,” noted Walker. “The chill is evidenced by the unwillingness of their members to turn out at protest events in the weeks following HB1’s enact
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