Plaintiffs challenging a new Florida law aimed at cracking down on protests are asking a federal judge to block portions of the statute from being enforced, arguing that the statute includes a “guilt-by-association” provision allowing police to “round up” peaceful demonstrators who haven’t done anything wrong.
A coalition of groups, including the Dream Defenders and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, in May filed a lawsuit challenging the new statute, which was one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top priorities for the 2021 legislative session that ended April 30.
The groups on Wednesday asked Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker for a preliminary injunction to block a central provision of the measure (HB 1), which includes a wide range of steps to penalize or enhance existing sanctions on violence and property damage related to protests.
A motion filed by plaintiffs Wednesday focused on a provision in the new law that expands the definition of “riot,” arguing that it is vague and gives police too much discretion. The statute allows law enforcement officials to arrest an individual who “willfully participates in a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons.”
But plaintiffs said the law “fails to clarify whether violence among a few at a demonstration renders the entire event a ‘riot’ … and whether a non-violent demonstrator can be considered as ‘willfully participating’ in a violent public disturbance simply because violence occurs among others who are in close proximity.” Plaintiffs maintain the law unconstitutionally “subjects non-violent protesters to criminal liability for exercising protected rights to speech and assembly.”
In Wednesday’s motion, plaintiffs argued that they and the members of their organizations are “reasonably frightened, not only because they could be arrested and held without bail for peacefully demonstrating” but also because the law makes it more likely that they “could be seriously injured or killed by people who disagree with their message.”
The law establishes an “affirmative defense” for defendants in civil lawsuits involving deaths, injuries or property damage if the injuries or damages were sustained while plaintiffs were participating “in furtherance of a riot.” DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate, has touted the law, calling it “the strongest, anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”
The governor laid out a framework for the legislation in September in response to nationwide protests after the May 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Walker this week scheduled a trial in the case for April 2022.
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