NAACP and ACLU add national clout to courtroom fight against FL’s new ‘anti-riot’ law

By Laura Cassels, Florida Phoenix,  May 11, 2021

Florida’s new anti-riot/protest law targets people of color protesting racial injustice in the United States and subjects them to harsh treatment at the hands of the police they are criticizing, asserts a major lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday.

It is the second lawsuit filed against the “Combating Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act” — passed by the Legislature as House Bill 1 and signed into law by the governor on April 19.

Both complaints charge that the new law violates constitutional rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, particularly for people of color protesting the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black people.

The second lawsuit adds that the new law puts the fate of protesters calling for policing reforms substantially in the hands of police, who will have on-site discretion to deem whether a peaceful protest has crossed the line — which could subject everyone present to arrest and a night in jail, at the minimum. People convicted under the riot and looting provisions of the law could be penalized by up to 15 years in prison.

The lawsuit was filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, based in New York and Washington, D.C., the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida, based in Miami, Community Justice Project, based in Miami, and the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, with offices in New York and D.C.

The groups filed the action in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on behalf of Dream Defenders, The Black Collective, Chainless Change, the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward County, NAACP Florida, and the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville.

It names Gov. Ron DeSantis, who called for such legislation last fall amid of Black Lives Matter protests across the state, the nation, and the world. In significant but isolated cases, violence, fires, and looting broke out, although there is no consensus about who was at fault. Both protesters and counter-protesters were arrested in various clashes, and protesters insist that law enforcement officers sometimes were the most violent of all.

DeSantis has defended the law as necessary to preserve public safety. “It is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There’s just nothing even close,” he said in signing the law.

Being sued alongside DeSantis are Attorney General Ashley Moody and sheriffs in the three home counties of the various plaintiffs.

“The enactment of the act has rendered Dream Defenders fearful of arrest and prosecution for engaging in speech, organizing or participating in demonstrations that constitute permissible and protected speech, particularly given their experience with violence at protests initiated by police and counter-protesters,” the lawsuit asserts.

“Chainless Change is also fearful of the act’s potential to strip participants in their demonstrations of their voting and other civil rights,” it says, referring to felony convictions that could remove those rights.

The plaintiffs charge that the new law makes it dangerous for people to participate in a protest, due to the risk of being branded as criminals; makes it impossible to guarantee the safety of protesters; and makes them liable for any misconduct at an event they sponsor, even if they do not sanction the trouble or have any direct role in it.

Furthermore, “The act’s provisions also harm Florida NAACP because it anticipates that its insurance rates for engaging in protesting and demonstrations across the state will increase to provide coverage for HB 1’s expansively broad reach and proscription of protected speech, expression, and assembly,” the complaint alleges.

The new law bans municipalities from reducing funding for law enforcement for any reason and makes cities liable for property damage or injury if their law-enforcement response is deemed too muted.

“As a result, municipalities are incentivized not to intervene or otherwise thwart overly-punitive law enforcement responses to demonstrations, for fear of running afoul of this provision,” the lawsuit alleges.

The previous lawsuit was filed on April 21 in federal court by Lawyers Matter Taskforce and Legacy Entertainment & Arts Foundation, both based in Orlando, and was joined by Black Lives Matter: Tampa and the Community Empowerment Project.

Black Lives Matter: Tampa said it plans to hold a peaceful protest there on Saturday, mindful of the risks posed by Florida’s new law.

Between 15 million and 26 million people in the United States are estimated to have participated in racial justice demonstrations following the police killings of Floyd and Taylor in 2020, possibly the largest mass movement in the country’s history, according to an analysis by The New York Times cited in the lawsuit.

 Image Credits: Demonstrators gathered in Tallahassee near the Florida Capitol on May 31, 2020, to protest the police killing of George Floyd. Credit: Peter T. Reinwald