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Florida 'anti-riot' law is unconstitutional, federal lawsuit contends

Steven Lemongello, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

ORLANDO, Fla. — An Orlando civil rights attorney filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Orange County Sheriff John Mina in what may be the first legal challenge against Florida’s new “anti-riot” law.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Orlando by attorney Aaron Carter Bates on behalf of the Lawyers Matter Task Force, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The suit claims that the law, signed by DeSantis on Monday, violates several provisions of the Bill of Rights.

“The purpose of these laws are nothing more than an attempt to silence the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil organizations by limiting the ability to protest,” Bates said in a statement. “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.”

DeSantis said Monday that the law, which he called “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country,” would protect law enforcement and private property against rioters.

But Democrats and civil rights groups have criticized the law for infringing on the First Amendment’s right to peacefully protest. The ACLU claimed the law was “overbroad and vague” and would make it easier for law enforcement to charge organizers and anyone involved in a protest, even if they had not engaged in any violence.

The law also creates a broad category for misdemeanor arrest during protests, and anyone charged under that provision will be denied bail until their first court appearance. It creates a new felony crime of “aggravated rioting” that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a new crime of “mob intimidation.”

“These statutes are unconstitutional on their face,” the lawsuit claims, because “they target protected speech under the First Amendment [and] they are written with the intent of defining any such protest as a ‘riot’ or participation in such protest as ‘inciting a riot.’”

 

The law also would subject those arrested to “excessive bail, fines, or cruel and unusual punishment as a means of hindering the speech of dissenting opinions,” the suit claims, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The law also exposes peaceful demonstrators to arrest for other people’s conduct and doesn’t describe what specific conduct would result in a charge of “inciting a riot,” violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process provision, the suit says.

It also claims the law is “discouraging” and “intimidating” for people who want to participate in protests.

Bates said that similar laws have been struck down on First Amendment grounds in South Dakota and Virginia.

DeSantis had pushed for the law since last year, claiming it was needed in the wake of protests following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of then-police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis.

The law, one of the first to be signed by DeSantis this legislative session, came into effect just hours before Chauvin’s guilty verdict was announced.

Representatives for DeSantis, Moody and Mina did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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