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Federal judge rules Florida ‘anti-riot’ law is unconstitutional

A federal judge has partially blocked Florida’s so-called “anti-riot” law that civil rights advocates argued has created a chilling effect on free speech and amounts to an assault on First Amendment protections.

US District Judge Mark Walker agreed with a coalition of civil rights groups who argued that the state’s definition of “riot” – expanded broadly to include three or more people involved in a violent public disturbance – is “vague and overbroad,” potentially targeting any person who attended a protest or was in the area.

“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,” the judge wrote in his 90-page ruling on 9 September.

The measure was signed into law earlier this year after the Republican-dominated legislature in an apparent reaction to widespread racial justice protests in the wake of police killings of Black Americans.

In a joint statement, plaintiffs represented by the ACLU of Florida argued the bill was written as a “direct response to racial justice protests in 2020 and appears designed to target those who protest police violence.”

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“Among other concerning provisions, the law risks criminalizing peaceful protest and shields those who injure or kill protestors – for example, by ramming their vehicles into protestors – from civil penalties,” they said. “As states around the country threaten to pass similar legislation, today’s decision serves as a powerful reminder that such unjust and unconstitutional efforts cannot stand.”

Judge Walker argued that the law “can plausibly be read to criminalize continuing to protest after violence occurs, even if the protestors are not involved” and “can also be read to criminalize other expressive activity, like remaining at the scene of a protest turned violent to film police reaction.”

He also condemned the governor’s attempt to dispute the law’s impact by submitting a flyer for a Juneteenth party that was scheduled after the bill’s initial passage – the governor’s attorneys appearing to conflate a celebration of the end of enslavement in the US with a protest.

Governor DeSantis “has conflated a community celebration of a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery with a protest,” Judge Walker wrote. “It should go without saying that a public gathering of Black people celebrating ‘Black joy’ and release from bondage does not automatically equate to a protest.”

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The law provides that protests can be classified as “mob intimidation,” a first-degree misdemeanour that carries a penalty of up to one year in prison. A riot classification is a second-degree felony with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.

Destruction of flags or historical property – including Confederate monuments – also can be punished as a third-degree felony with a five-year prison sentence.

It also shields drivers who potentially injure or kill protesters with their cars by granting them an affirmative defense that protects them from civil or criminal liability.

While racial justice advocates have demanded accountability for police violence, Republican lawmakers have instead pursued similar legislation to counter Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Similar legislation was passed in Oklahoma and Iowa. Legislation in Indiana proposed barring residents from holding state employment if they’re convicted of unlawful assembly. A Minnesota bill proposed blocking them from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance.

In a joint statement, plaintiffs said the judge’s ruling “will greatly contribute to the safety of Black organizers and others affected by this unjust law.”

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“This targeting of protesters is shameful and directly contradicts our Constitution,” they said. “We are glad the court has agreed to suspend enforcement of this key provision while we continue to advocate to ensure that protesters in Florida can safely exercise their right to speak out against injustice.”

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is running for governor against Mr DeSantis, called the law “dangerous and discriminatory” and that the ruling reveals “the governor’s continued attempts to strong-arm and silence opponents are unconstitutional.”