[Opinion] The Florida Anti-Riot Bill is a threat to First Amendment Rights


Tribune News Service

Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a press conference at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, on Monday, April 19, 2021. The governor signed into law a new riot bill, surrounded by law enforcement, legislators and police union representatives. Photo courtesy of Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/TNS

On Monday, April 19, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the “Combating Public Disorder Act” into law, an explicit legislative response to the continuing protests for racial justice after George Floyd, a black man, was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer. Florida Republicans maintain that this piece of legislation will prevent what Governor DeSantis referred to as, “…bullying and intimidation tactics of the radical left.”

Under close examination, however, it is clear that this bill is an oppressive attempt at restricting the First Amendment freedoms of activists, while ironically “bullying” and “intimidating” those exercising their fundamental right of public protest through the use of punitive and restrictive measures.

This bill, among other things, gives the state of Florida immense discretion to prosecute protestors simply for the act of protesting, a direct opposition of their freedoms. One notable example of this is the creation of a new misdemeanor category called “mob intimidation,” which was defined as when two or more people use the “threat of force” to try to change one’s view.

The implications of this are extremely problematic; for one, the threat of force is a largely subjective category, thus opening up large swaths of peaceful protestors to even more prosecution than already exists within the state law of Florida. The legal ramifications aren’t the only worrying implication of this new misdemeanor category.

The bill also grants civil immunity to individuals driving into crowds of protestors (or “mobs” as the bill categorizes them), under the guise of self-defense. This creates a potentially fatal legal pathway for individuals to commit grave political violence with the justification of self-defense, and receive protection from the state.

Essentially, this legalizes political murder if one claims they felt adequately threatened by a crowd and opens up the door for domestic terrorism on multiple fronts, not even a full year after incidents of individuals driving into protestors spiked during the Summer uprising.

Furthermore, the bill makes “participating in a riot,” loosely defined as what amounts to a protest with over three people, a third-degree felony, which could carry a charge of up to five years in prison.

Effectively, this bill has made it a misdemeanor to exercise one’s First Amendment Rights and criminalize an essential component of the American political experiment, an ironic reality coming from the party of supposed freedom and strict constitutionality.

Even certain local authorities believe that this bill is overreaching and authoritarian, with the Broward police department being told not to enforce the law unless it is “absolutely necessary.”

The authoritarian grasp of this legislation doesn’t just stop its effective criminalization of protest and free speech. Rather, it extends its hold to legislating upon the very autonomy of municipalities when it comes to running their police departments.

The new bill gives the state the power to override attempts at lowering police budgets, a direct response to calls to defund the police that have swept across America as a means of reimagining public safety. Additionally, the bill creates harsh punishments for anyone who tries to deface statues, quite ironic considering the way it regards the human beings protesting for racial justice.

The takeaway is clear; Ron DeSantis and the “freedom” loving Republican party want to crush the voices of any dissenters while preserving their own.

Under this bill, individuals can’t protest, and any attempts at peacefully using the system to defund the police can easily be overridden.

This bill makes it evident that the Republican state government doesn’t think racial justice protestors deserve a say. So much for freedom.