The new “anti-riot” law in Florida backed by Governor Ron DeSantis cannot be enforced and is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Thursday, according to the Associated Press.
DeSantis had promoted the law as a way to subdue potentially violent protests. But a 90-page decision from U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee said the “vague and overboard” law breached First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, as well as due process safeguards in the Constitution, the AP said.
The Florida law, signed by DeSantis in April, was set into motion after nationwide protests followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year. In the decision, the judge noted that the law could impose criminal charges and stiff penalties against people protesting peacefully or those who happened to be in an area where a protest becomes violent.
“If this court does not enjoin the statute’s enforcement, the lawless actions of a few rogue individuals could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians,” Walker wrote. “It unfortunately takes only a handful of bad actors to transform a peaceful protest into a violent public disturbance.”
For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.
The lawsuit was filed against DeSantis and other state officials by the NAACP Florida conference, Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward and other groups who argue the law appears specifically aimed to halt protests by Black people and other minorities.
The governor’s lawyers have argued that the law continues to allow peaceful protest but is an effort to draw a sharp distinction between that and a violent riot. Walker found that argument unpersuasive.
“Because it is unclear whether a person must share an intent to do violence and because it is unclear what it means to participate, the statute can plausibly be read to criminalize continuing to protest after violence occurs, even if the protestors are not involved in, and do not support, the violence,” Walker wrote. “The statute can also be read to criminalize other expressive activity, like remaining at the scene of a protest turned violent to film the police reaction.”
DeSantis can appeal the ruling to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the ruling.
The law, also known as HB1, stiffens penalties for crimes committed during a riot or violent protest. It allows authorities to detain arrested protesters until a first court appearance and establishes new felonies for organizing or participating in a violent demonstration.
It also makes it a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to destroy or demolish a memorial, plaque, flag, painting, structure or other object that commemorates historical people or events.
In addition, the measure requires that local governments justify any reductions in law enforcement budgets.