National News Desk

What to know about Florida’s anti-riot law and the corresponding legal challenge

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(NEW YORK) — Florida’s controversial anti-riot law is going to have its day in court.

Civil rights groups including the ACLU of Florida, the Dream Defenders and the Black Collective have sued the state and Gov. Ron DeSantis, alleging HB 1, the law called “Combating Public Disorder,” specifically targets Black people, infringes on Floridians’ First Amendment rights and “deters and punishes peaceful protests.”

Chief Judge Mark Walker will hear from the plaintiffs in a hearing set for Aug. 30 in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee.

Ahead of the hearing, here’s what the law is supposed to do, what to expect at this month’s hearing and what’s at stake for protesters — not just in Florida but throughout the U.S.

The law

HB 1 criminalizes protests that turn violent and could have serious consequences for demonstrators. Protests can be deemed “mob intimidation,” which is a first-degree misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to one year in prison, or classified as a “riot,” a second-degree felony with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.

Under the new law, protesters can’t post bail until after making an initial court appearance, and any damage to historical property, such as a Confederate moment, is classified as a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. The law also protects drivers who potentially injure or kill protesters with vehicles by granting them affirmative defense, excusing them from civil or criminal liability.

DeSantis proposed the legislation after a summer of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. At the bill signing on April 19, Gov. DeSantis proclaimed HB 1 was the “strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”

“In Florida, we are taking an unapologetic stand for the rule of law and public safety,” the governor’s office said in a statement to ABC News. “We are holding those who incite violence in our communities accountable, supporting our law enforcement officers who risk their lives every day to keep us safe and protecting Floridians from the chaos of mob violence.”

Opponents of the law say HB 1 is a racist reaction to protests that were mostly peaceful.

“It’s all an effort to demonize Black and brown people to further create division in our country,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani of Florida told ABC News, adding that the governor’s statements only stoked the fire because “statements like that are also against Black voices, because it’s Black voices who are who are speaking for a new vision of law enforcement.”

Civil rights groups suing Florida allege HB 1 makes people afraid to exercise their constitutional right to protest. Representatives from the Dream Defenders said they’ve seen turnout at protests drastically decrease and have even had to cancel demonstrations to protect members from violence, according to the filing.

Section 15

The plaintiffs argue HB1 is “unconstitutional in its entirety,” but this month’s hearing is a preliminary injunction against Section 15. That’s the part of the law that defines what a riot is.

HB 1 challengers say the definition is vague and overbroad, authorizing selective interpretation where “police officers decide in every instance what constitutes a riot and who can be arrested.”

“Section 15 is kind of the central enforcement mechanism of HB 1,” said Max Gaston, a staff attorney of the ACLU of Florida. “So, just to put it into perspective, Section 15 essentially means that peaceful protesters could be arrested, held without bail, charged with a felony punishable by up to five years in prison just for standing in an otherwise peaceful demonstration if violence occurs nearby.”

Republican leaders don’t see the law that way.

“There is a clear difference between a riot and a peaceful protest. A riot is, by legal definition, violent,” Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ press secretary, said. “The legislation protects First Amendment freedoms while ensuring that law enforcement professionals are empowered to use their discretion to maintain public safety.”

Potential consequences

This month’s hearing, in addition to clarifying the reach of Section 15, could decide the constitutionality of the entire law. That’s because so many of the other penalties in the law rely on the definitions laid out in Section 15.

“The goal of getting Section 15 blocked would essentially allow us to block some of the more problematic provisions,” Gaston told ABC News.

The preliminary injunction asks the court to enjoin the law. If Walker sides with the plaintiffs, HB 1 would be blocked immediately while litigation challenging its constitutionality goes through the courts.

Lawsuits over HB 1 are piling up. Gainesville city commissioners voted Thursday to sue the state over HB 1, becoming the first Florida city to do so.

However, anti-riot bills aren’t just being passed in Florida. Just this week, legislators in Nassau County, New York, approved a bill saying anyone who harasses or injures a first responder can be fined up to $50,000 and that first responders can sue a person directly.

At least 45 other states have considered similar legislation — 36 initiatives limiting the rights of protesters have passed, and 51 of them are currently pending, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which tracks federal and local anti-protest laws.

Gaston and other organizers said now they’re concerned about the type of precedent HB 1, if upheld in court, could set nationwide.

“When lawmakers with a certain agenda see that something like HB 1 is able to happen here in Florida,” Gaston continued, “the credible threat exists that they might look at that and say to themselves, ‘Well, maybe we can get away with that here too.'”

Eskamani, the state representative, agreed.

“It’s always like one step forward, two steps back, where you just constantly feel like as you’re marching forward with systematic changes — the status quo pushes back, flexes its muscles and tries to silence you,” she said. “But, I mean, we are preparing for those fights — 100%.”

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