‘Anti-riot’ law backed by Florida Gov. DeSantis blocked by federal judge

By John Kennedy, Capital Bureau, USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA, Sep 10, 2021

TALLAHASSEE – Another of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ policy priorities has been blocked, with a federal court Thursday stopping enforcement of his so-called anti-riot law that opponents said was riddled with constitutional defects.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker agreed with arguments made by several civil rights organizations which pushed to stop the law. It had gone on the books in April after DeSantis signed it flanked by uniformed law enforcement officers at an event in Polk County.

The Republican governor proposed the measure in the weeks following nationwide protests last year which stemmed from George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. DeSantis called it the “strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”

Walker, however, said in his order that the law was a threat to the constitutional rights of Americans: “Its vagueness permits those in power to weaponize its enforcement against any group who wishes to express any message that the government disapproves of.”

He added, “While there may be some Floridians who welcome the chilling effect that this law has … depending on who is in power, next time it could be their ox being gored.”

The law toughened penalties for crimes that occur during protests that become violent and creates new crimes including “mob intimidation,” “inciting a riot” and “defacing, damaging or destroying a monument,” largely aimed at protecting Confederate monuments across Florida which are occasional targets of protests.

DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said, “We will immediately file an appeal, where we are confident that the 11th Circuit will correctly apply the law and uphold HB 1 to ensure Florida’s law enforcement agencies have the tools necessary to combat riots and keep Floridian’s safe.”

Stops police cuts

The measure also attempted to thwart any efforts to reduce city police budgets – giving state attorneys and elected officials who object to local cuts the ability to appeal to the state’s Administration Commission, comprised of the governor and Cabinet.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Dream Defenders, the Black Collective and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP are among the groups which filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law in May. Arguments before Walker were held last month.

It’s the second major DeSantis-backed law stopped by a federal judge. Earlier this summer, Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle halted DeSantis’ effort to crack down on social media companies, which the governor demanded after former President Trump was de-platformed after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Facebook determined that Trump “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible.” The former president is still exiled from major social media sites.

But similar to Walker’s ruling, Hinkle said that the social media law undermined constitutional free speech protections for Twitter, Facebook and other platforms, which as private companies, are authorized to adhere to standards for users.

Hinkle said that law went too far, writing, “Like prior First Amendment restrictions, this is an instance of burning the house to roast a pig.”

Social media defeat appealed

The DeSantis administration has appealed the social media decision to the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, where six Trump-appointed judges serve and a majority has been named by Republican presidents.

The law enforcement legislation (HB 1) was among the most contentious bills of the 2021 legislative session. It was approved by all Republicans but one – Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg – and all Democrats in the House and Senate opposed.

Black Democrats, especially, warned that the tougher penalties included in the measure could be applied unequally. Many critics said they feared it gave too much authority to law enforcement officers to decide whether to arrest peaceful protesters at demonstrations where violence may have erupted.

That concern was also shared by Walker in his order blocking the law.

In their lawsuit, the civil rights organizations argued that the law “permits the arrest, detention and prosecution of protesters who are not engaged in criminal conduct, but rather who simply participate in certain protests.”

Following Walker’s order, 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.”

DeSantis also is battling in state court to preserve his ban on mask mandates in schools, an order defied by 11 Florida school districts. The order was thrown out by a Leon County judge who also this week ordered that masks be authorized without a parent opt-out while the governor appeals the ruling to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

In federal court, DeSantis also has been sued over a new Florida law banning transgender females from playing on women’s and girl’s athletic teams, a measure the governor promoted.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport