Whether it’s pushing back against lockdown restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic or the populist push to combat social media censorship, Governor Ron DeSantis continues to find ways to stay at the forefront of the national conversation. One of the more recent issues sure to boost his state’s reputation as a bastion of conservative thought: Florida’s new anti-riot laws, collectively known as the Combating Public Disorder Act (HB1).
The Sunshine State was among the first to pass a new law after peaceful demonstrations for racial justice across the country gave way in some places to rioting, violence, and lawlessness.
But while Florida may be among the first, the state’s move is certainly not unique. Across the nation, more than 99 state laws and three federal laws addressing civil unrest have been proposed, with nine of them, including Florida’s HB1, already approved and signed into law. More than a third of the proposals have already been defeated in state legislatures or vetoed by governors.
The remainder of the legal proposals are still pending, while all eyes are trained on the federal challenges to Florida’s sweeping laws. According to Law360:
The Florida lawsuits could serve as a bellwether for future litigation that could challenge these laws as unconstitutional, according to Rachel Kleinman, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and co-counsel for the Dream Defenders suit.
“I definitely think this case is being closely watched, maybe by both sides, to see what kind of challenges are going to be successful, and how far people can push,” she said.
The Dream Defenders suit alleges that H.B. 1 violates the First Amendment because it limits free speech and targets specific political messages. The litigation also includes a 14th Amendment challenge, arguing the law was “designed to target Black-led protests.” And it alleges the law includes a definition of rioting that is so broad, it amounts to a due process violation, since protesters can’t be sure what behavior will be considered illegal.
While the legislation was crafted by the hands of many Florida lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, the political credit or liability still falls at the feet of DeSantis, who called on lawmakers to deliver a bill to him last September. At that time, he released the framework for what he wanted the legislation to include, including stiff criminal penalties for violence directed at police officers, blocking roadways, disrupting restaurants, or toppling monuments.
“You see videos of these innocent people eating dinner and you have these crazed lunatics just screaming at them and intimidating them on a public accommodation,” DeSantis said. “You aren’t going to do that in the state of Florida.”
But the courts will get the final say, and HB1 faces two different federal lawsuits. One, filed by a coalition of Black Lives Matter of Broward County, the NAACP of Florida, and the Dream Defenders, argues the law is unconstitutional because, for starters, they argue, it defines “rioting” so broadly that protesters can’t be certain what actions are legal. The lawsuit also challenges HB1 on the basis that it violates free speech and targets specific political messages.
A second lawsuit, filed by a group called the Lawyers Matter Task Force, which describes itself as a racial justice nonprofit, includes similar due process and free speech arguments, but also argues an additional Eighth Amendment violation, on the basis that HB1 amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” because it deprives a presumably innocent citizen of the right to assemble, and the right to timely bail, among other things.