Florida’s new “anti-riot” law championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as a way to quell violent protests is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
The 90-page decision by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee found the recently-enacted law “vague and overbroad” and amounted to an assault on First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly as well as the Constitution’s due process protections.
People engaged in peaceful protest or innocently in the same area when a demonstration turned violent could face criminal charges and stiff penalties under the law, the judge said.
“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,” Walker wrote.
“It unfortunately takes only a handful of bad actors to transform a peaceful protest into a violent public disturbance,” the judge added.
The lawsuit was filed against DeSantis and other state officials by the NAACP Florida conference, Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward and other groups who argue the law appears specifically aimed to halt protests by Black people and other minorities.
The measure was passed earlier this year by the GOP-led Legislature and signed into law in April by the governor. It was a reaction to demonstrations around the country following last year’s killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, a Black man, that stirred passions nationwide under the banner of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
WINK News has seen the protests and heard what people wanted. Chantel Rhodes is someone who has made sure of that. She brought people together peacefully.
“It does give peaceful protesters such as myself some hope and some faith in our in our government in our court system and our leaders’ abilities to make certain decisions and to make them fairly,” Rhodes told WINK News.
Fair is what Attorney Shannon Ligon sees with this law blocked. She was one of the first to file a lawsuit.
“We consider it bad law. It was overbreadth. It was ambiguous. It was vague,” Ligon told WINK News. “It didn’t give you the right to bail, get to see a judge, a lot of different constitutional law violation. So I’m glad to see our judicial system get it right.”
But Gov. Ron DeSantis thinks the judicial system got it wrong.
“We will win that on appeal. I guarantee we will win that appeal,” DeSantis said.
David Thomas, a forensic studies professor at FGCU, says the appeal isn’t the answer. That lies within the communities.
“Let’s try to work out the differences, so we don’t have to do this,” Thomas told WINK News.
This isn’t what Rhodes wants to do. She wants someone to listen to their chants, make change with their words.
“Let’s get to the root of the issue,’ Rhodes said. “We just wish that our government would put more energy and more time into unifying things.”
Under the law, anyone arrested for rioting, automatically must go to jail until they go before a judge. Assaulting an officer during a protest would mean a mandatory six months in jail.