Florida’s new “anti-riot” to be challenged in court

The Center Square
By John Haughey
April 26, 2021

Protestors are seen engaging with Miami Police in riot gear as they fire tear gas into the crowd during the protests for George Floyd on May 30, 2020 in Miami, Florida. mpi04/MediaPunch

(The Center Square) – Florida’s Combating Public Disorder Act went into effect when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the controversial “anti-riot” measure during a Monday ceremony.

Opponents vow to test the new law in court and on the streets – perhaps as soon as this weekend in Orlando.

Two days after DeSantis signed House Bill 1, calling it “the strongest anti-riot/pro-law enforcement legislation in the country,” the first of what could be many legal challenges was registered Wednesday when an Orlando-based civil rights nonprofit filed a federal lawsuit claiming provisions in the law “seek to arrest the peaceful expression of free speech.”

Florida’s “anti-riot” law “is a horrendous injustice to Florida citizens and infringes on multiple constitutional rights,” said attorney Shannon Ligon, founder of the Lawyers Matter Task Force, in a statement.

Ligon, who was involved in the Trayvon Martin case, founded Lawyers Matter Task Force in June to hold law enforcement accountable by providing families with civil rights attorneys.

The 22-page lawsuit argues provisions within HB 1 “target protected speech under the First Amendment” and “retaliate against” protesters by imposing “excessive bail, fines, or cruel and unusual punishment as a means of hindering the speech of dissenting opinions,” said lawyer Aaron Carter Bates, who filed the suit, in a statement submitted to the News Service of Florida.

The law “unconstitutionally threatens to impose liability on individuals expressing their rights to free speech regardless of their intent to incite violence, the likelihood that their speech will result in violence, or the imminence of the intended violence,” Bates wrote.

The suit maintains the law “effectively barred plaintiffs from exercising their free speech rights because of the resulting penalty of arrest” during a peaceful demonstration planned for Saturday in Orlando to honor George Floyd “and other victims of racism and police brutality.”

“As it relates to the planned demonstration” for Saturday, Bates wrote, “perceived unlawful violence, acts of force, or arrests may occur, even violence perpetrated by law enforcement,” noting plaintiffs fear criminal and civil liability even if their intent is peaceful.

“Plaintiffs must choose between encouraging and advising peaceful demonstrations, on the one hand, and exposing themselves to prosecution and civil liability under the denounced laws, on the other,” the suit maintains. “Refraining from encouraging and advising peaceful demonstrations constitutes self-censorship at a loss of plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.”

The lawsuit states after spending money to arrange Saturday’s demonstration, organizers “are no longer able” to obtain co-sponsors and other support because many fear criminal prosecution with the new law in place.

“In effect, the bill creates a perpetual threat of liability to plaintiffs and others in the event that anyone plaintiffs encourage or assist is arrested at any point in the future. Accordingly, the bill illegally restricts protected speech and association,” Bates wrote.

The 61-page ‘Combating Public Disorder Act’ enhances penalties for crimes committed during protests, requires people arrested during demonstrations stay in jail until a court appearance, creates “mob intimidation” felonies preempts local control of law enforcement budgets and allows local governments to be sued if they fail to stop a riot.

Under HB 1, it’s a second-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison to destroy a memorial, plaque, flag, painting, structure commemorating people or events.

The new law defines “riot” as a violent public disturbance involving “three or more people acting with common intent” and creates second-degree felony called “aggravated riot,” which occurs when the riot has more than 25 participants, causes bodily harm or more than $5,000 in property damage, uses or threatens to use a deadly weapon, or blocks roadways by force or threat of force.

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