Florida Adopts Nation's Toughest Restrictions On Protests

Apr 19, 2021
Originally published on April 20, 2021 9:50 am

Florida's governor has signed a law that he called the "strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement measure in the country." The law was written in response to protests around the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. It provides new protections for police and increases the penalties for people who take part in property damage or violence during protests.

Florida experienced little of the violence seen elsewhere in the country last summer following Floyd's death. But Gov. Ron DeSantis said tougher laws were needed to make sure Florida doesn't see the kind of protests that occurred in Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and other cities. At the bill signing Monday, DeSantis said, "If you riot, if you loot, if you harm others, particularly if you harm a law enforcement officer during one of these violent assemblies, you're going to jail."

The law increases penalties for protesters who block roadways or deface public monuments. It creates a new crime, "mob intimidation." And it requires that anyone arrested at a protest be denied bail until their first court appearance, likely making for overnight jail stays.

The law makes local officials in Florida liable for lawsuits from injured parties if they are found to have not done enough to respond to control violent protests. And it reacts to the "defund the police" movement, allowing officials to appeal to the governor and his Cabinet any decision by local officials to reduce funding to law enforcement.

Civil rights and social justice groups said it's an unconstitutional attack on free speech. Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said, "To be clear, the goal of this law is to silence dissent and create fear among Floridians who want to take to the streets to march for justice."

Nailah Summers of Dream Defenders, one of the groups that was active in organizing protests in Florida, said the law disproportionately affects minority communities. Of the governor and state lawmakers, she said, "They should be ashamed of themselves. Black lives matter and so do our constitutional rights. We'll see you in court."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Just as the country is awaiting a verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial and potential protests, one Republican governor has passed a new law to crack down on protesters. Florida's Ron DeSantis calls it the strongest anti-rioting pro-law enforcement legislation in the country.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The law was first proposed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in September, a response to the protests around the country that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Florida had protests but little of the violence seen in Portland, Minneapolis and other cities. Even so, DeSantis said tougher laws were needed in Florida to make sure those kind of protests don't happen here.

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RON DESANTIS: If you riot, if you loot, if you harm others, particularly if you harm a law enforcement officer during one of these violent assemblies, you're going to jail.

ALLEN: The law increases penalties for protesters who block roadways or deface public monuments. It creates a new crime - mob intimidation. It requires that anyone arrested at a protest be denied bail until their first court appearance, likely making for overnight jail stays. And it makes local officials liable to lawsuits from injured parties if they're found to have not done enough to respond to control violent protests.

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DESANTIS: If you're derelict in your duty as a local government, if you tell law enforcement to stand down, then you're responsible for the damage that ensues. And if someone's been harmed or their property has been destroyed, then they can sue you for compensation.

ALLEN: The new law also responds to the defund police movement, allowing officials to appeal any decision to reduce funding for law enforcement. DeSantis' proposals passed easily in Florida's Republican-controlled legislature. Democrats uniformly opposed it, calling it a political play aimed at the Republican base. Committing violence and property damage at protests is already illegal, they point out. Other provisions of the law Democratic Representative Michele Rayner said are vague and likely unconstitutional.

MICHELE RAYNER: The bill talks about if three or more people are gathered together. So right now, this would be a mob. We would be arrested. So it's cute to say it's peaceful protest. But once again, the question becomes who's determining what's peaceful or not?

ALLEN: More than two dozen Republican legislators and law enforcement officials joined DeSantis yesterday at the bill signing, all of them white. Whether intentional or not, the optics made clear where DeSantis is positioning himself. He's running for reelection as Florida governor next year and is in the mix as a possible Republican presidential nominee in 2024. Democratic State Senator Shevrin Jones said the fight over Florida's new protest law isn't over.

SHEVRIN JONES: If the Jim Crow era didn't teach us one thing, it taught us that this is a long game, and it's going to require bold souls. And that's why I'm happy to stand with my colleagues today and to let Governor DeSantis know that you have just declared war on the First Amendment.

ALLEN: Jones, other Democrats and civil liberties groups say they believe the law violates constitutional protections of freedom of assembly and that it will be challenged in court. Greg Allen, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHELIAN'S "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.