An Orlando-based racial justice organization on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, claiming that Florida’s controversial new “anti-riot bill” criminalizes conduct and speech that is unequivocally protected under the First Amendment “under the pretext of preventing riots.”
The wide-ranging law, which took effect immediately after being signed by the Republican governor on Monday, grants civil immunity to people who drive through demonstrators that are “obstructing traffic by standing in the street” and also creates several new crimes.
“The breathtaking scope of the Bill includes granting civil immunity to people who drive into peaceful demonstrators if such demonstration blocks a road, prevents people accused of ‘rioting’ from bailing out of jail until after their first court appearance, increases penalties for assaulting law enforcement officers while engaging in a ‘riot,’ penalizing local governments that interfere with efforts to stop a ‘riot,’ and allows law enforcement agencies that face funding reductions to file objections,” the complaint stated.
Due to the broad language used in the text of the law, civil rights groups have said it could easily be used as a weapon to prosecute organizers and protesters. Upon signing the bill into law, Gov. DeSantis himself said there was “nothing even close” to the law in any other state.
“If you look at the breadth of this particular piece of legislation, it is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country,” DeSantis said at a Monday press conference.
The 23-page lawsuit, filed by the nonprofit group Legacy Entertainment & Arts Foundation in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Florida, contended that the measure is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to suppress dissenting voices.
“The Anti-Riot Bill was passed in response to protests against the murders of minorities by the hands of police officers – including the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain,” the complaint stated. “These statutes are unconstitutional on their face and as-applied to Plaintiffs’ planned speech and expressive conduct because: (1) they target protected speech under the First Amendment; (2) they are written with the intent of defining any such protest as a ‘riot’ or participation in such protest as ‘inciting a riot’; and (3) they retaliate against those subjected to these laws with excessive bail, fines, or cruel and unusual punishment as a means of hindering the speech of dissenting opinions.”
Attorney Aaron Bates, who filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, told the Orlando Sentinel that the laws are “nothing more than an attempt to silence the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil organizations by limiting the ability to protest.”
“The First Amendment is a pillar of American democracy, and the ‘anti-riot’ laws clearly strip Floridians of their freedom of speech and right to assemble,” he added.
Read the full lawsuit below.
[image via Joe Raedle/Getty Images]
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