From the moment Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed legislation to crack down on protests, lawyers and civil-liberties groups have cried foul, arguing that the proposed bill would chill free speech, discourage people from demonstrating, and inspire vigilantism against protesters.
The governor signed the bill into law on Monday, and it went into effect immediately. The law enhances punishments for most crimes committed at protests, can penalize those who stand in a public street or highway during a demonstration, gives some civil immunity to drivers who run over protesters, and prevents people from bailing out of jail immediately if they're arrested while protesting.
Melba Pearson, a civil-rights attorney and policy director at FIU's Center for the Administration of Justice, told New Times earlier this week that the law is ripe for constitutional challenges. Those will soon be explored in court, because DeSantis is already being sued over the legislation.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Orlando, the nonprofit Lawyers Matter Task Force argues that the Combating Public Disorder Act violates the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution by:
- equating peaceful protesting with rioting;
- exposing protesters and organizers to civil and criminal liability for the actions of others, regardless of the protesters' or organizers' intent;
- failing to describe what conduct or speech will make a person or organization responsible for inciting a riot;
- discouraging participation by others at protests; and
- intimidating demonstrators and organizers by enhancing punishments and denying bail until first appearance
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, says the Lawyers Matter Task Force and other plaintiffs were planning a protest for this coming Saturday, April 24, to honor George Floyd and other victims of police brutality.
"However, the signing of the Anti-Riot Bill on April 19, 2021, by DeSantis effectively barred Plaintiffs from exercising their free speech rights because of the resulting penalty of arrest," the lawsuit says.
Constitutional experts told Law360 that a person has standing to challenge the law if they can show that they would have protested if not for fear of being arrested under the Combating Public Disorder Act.
"This bill is designed to limit people's constitutional rights," Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, tells New Times. "I think the point of the bill is to make it so people are so terrified of showing up and speaking out that they don't show up at all."
That in itself, Kubic contends, is a constitutional violation.
"Trying to frighten people into not expressing their First Amendment rights is unconstitutional," Kubic says. "You have a right to free speech, and the government isn't supposed to do things that will try to pressure you into being silent."
Kubic believes that more lawyers and civil-liberties groups will be reviewing their options to challenge the law in the coming days and weeks.
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