Civil-rights attorneys are challenging a new set of state laws that establish a crime of “mob intimidation” and enhance penalties for riot-related violence and looting, arguing in a federal lawsuit that the measures unconstitutionally “seek to arrest the peaceful expression of free speech.”
The challenge was filed Wednesday, two days after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the controversial package (HB 1), one of his top legislative priorities. 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.
Republican lawmakers gave final approval to the changes last week, ignoring objections by Democrats and civil-rights groups that predicted the proposal would be challenged in court. A non-profit organization known as the Lawyers Matter Task Force and other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in federal court in Orlando, naming as defendants DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Orange County Sheriff John Mina.
The legislation “is a horrendous injustice to Florida citizens and infringes on multiple constitutional rights,” Shannon Ligon, founder of the Lawyers Matter Task Force, said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
The laws, among other things, create 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,” which makes it unlawful “for a person, assembled with two or more other persons and acting with a common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will.”
But the plaintiffs allege the laws expose “peaceful demonstrators and social justice advocacy organizations to civil and/or criminal liability” for other peoples’ conduct.
The laws also fail “to adequately describe what conduct or speech will subject an individual or an organization to liability for ‘inciting a riot,’” the lawsuit said.
The measures “target protected speech under the First Amendment” and “retaliate against” protesters by imposing “excessive bail, fines, or cruel and unusual punishment as a means of hindering the speech of dissenting opinions,” Orlando lawyer Aaron Carter Bates, who represents the plaintiffs, wrote in the 22-page lawsuit.
The legislation “unconstitutionally threatens to impose liability on individuals expressing their rights to free speech regardless of their intent to incite violence, the likelihood that their speech will result in violence, or the imminence of the intended violence,” Bates wrote.
In a prepared statement provided to The News Service of Florida, Bates called the measures an overreach.
“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,” he said. “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.”
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said they planned on holding a peaceful demonstration Saturday to honor Floyd “and other victims of racism and police brutality.” But DeSantis’ signature on the legislation, which went into effect immediately, “effectively barred plaintiffs from exercising their free speech rights because of the resulting penalty of arrest” by Mina and imprisonment by Moody, the lawsuit said.
Peaceful protests could be “characterized as a ‘riot’ due solely on the misconduct of one or two individuals — without any intent by plaintiffs,” Bates wrote on behalf of the plaintiffs.
“As it relates to the planned demonstration, perceived unlawful violence, acts of force, or arrests may occur, even violence perpetrated by law enforcement,” the lawyer argued, adding that the plaintiffs fear criminal and civil liability though their intent is for the protest to be peaceful.
“Plaintiffs must choose between encouraging and advising peaceful demonstrations, on the one hand, and exposing themselves to prosecution and civil liability under the denounced laws, on the other. Refraining from encouraging and advising peaceful demonstrations constitutes self-censorship at a loss of plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights,” the lawsuit alleged.
Also, the laws will inhibit other organizers and groups, the lawsuit said.
“The potential liability to organizations prevents them from effectively advocating for their views, even though group association enhances advocacies,” Bates wrote. “In effect, the bill creates a perpetual threat of liability to plaintiffs and others in the event that anyone plaintiffs encourage or assist is arrested at any point in the future. Accordingly, the bill illegally restricts protected speech and association.”
The legislation, titled “Combatting Public Disorder,” is not tailored narrowly enough to protect the government’s interests, Bates argued.
“Unwarranted violence or public disorder during a demonstration is already illegal under Florida law,” he wrote. “The governments’ reported interest in preventing ‘riots’ is already established by existing Florida criminal statutes.”
The lawsuit also alleged that the new measures violate constitutional due-process rights because they “invite arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
At a ceremonial bill-signing event Monday in Polk County, DeSantis boasted that the bill is “the strongest, anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”
The legislation “strikes the appropriate balance of safeguarding every Floridians’ constitutional right to peacefully assemble, while ensuring that those who hide behind peaceful protest to cause violence in our communities will be punished,” he said.
But the plaintiffs’ lawyer argued that the laws are impeding organizers’ ability to follow through on Saturday’s event, which they spent money to plan.
The organizers of the rally “are no longer able” to obtain co-sponsors or co-organizers because others are afraid of criminal prosecution, the lawsuit said.
“DeSantis’ signing of the bill into law … generated what appears to be the intended effect (but whatever intentional or inadvertent the effect, the bill’s violation of the Constitution happens and continues.) The ability of plaintiffs to conduct peaceful demonstration without fear of retaliation was impaired,” Bates wrote.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida
Peaches McGee says
Violence, looting, destruction, and intimidation are not peacefully and already illegal. This law enhances those penalties.
Everyone I know supports peaceful protest not riots.
Florida Voter says
Wait … “acting with a common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act …,” so wasn’t the ceremonial bill-signing exactly that?
Isn’t most law enforcement exactly that? If you resist, they will definitely “use force” to get you to comply.
This law is a violation of itself.
Desantis use to be the US rep for our area. Do you remember all that he did to help our area? Right. Nothing. He didn’t even live here. I thought Scott was the worse governor we ever had until Desantis came along. He was absolutely nothing until he jumped onto the crazy trump train. He thinks that now allows him to be as crazy as trump was/is. Desantis is just another follower. Can’t think on his own, can’t provide his own ideas, just follow someone else’s lead. A “tear down” politician only concerned about his own follower and not all residents of FL. When are we going to get someone who is right for Florida and be an actual leader? And yes, I am a lifelong republican.
He is the best thing that could have come along for Florida….
1st this was your other choice… “Andrew Gillum, Who Ran for Florida Governor, Is Entering Rehab”
2nd he did what was and is right for the most vulnerable in Florida and what was and is right for the Florida economy during the virus that started in China and worked it’s way around the world and shared by all nations….. Just look at the stats…..
He’s a useless big mouth do nothing
Couldn’t have said it better myself!! This craziness has to stop!
He most certainly did live in our area, in Lakeside by the Sea, while he served as our Congressman. I needed someone to intercede in a matter involving a Government Agency, called his office and he resolved it. I never told him who I voted for or which political party I was affiliated with – only that I was a constituent that needed help – and he helped me. He was a great Congressman, is a great Governor and I hope he runs and wins so he can be a great President!
Thank you DeSantis, for continuing to protect all of us here in wonderful Florida! Keep up the great work! Can’t wait to vote for you again!
Merrill Shapiro says
It’s increasingly clear that if our Governor and extreme right legislators (prominent among them our State Representative Paul Renner) were around during the Boston Tea Party, they would have sided with the British. DeSantis’ values and Renner’s values are NOT American values! Tea Party people in 1773 were Patriots. DeSantis and Renner are NOT Patriots!
Since Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida legislature are panicked at the prospect of those 3 person mobs bringjng turmoil to our state, it’s good to see that those with clearer minds are pointing out how foolish and unconstitutional this legislation is.
Did ‘our leaders’ skip the First Amendment in their civics lessons? Do the words ‘ no laws…..abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances’ confuse them? Or do they simply think that they are wiser than The Founders ?
It seems that the Second is the only Constitutional Amendment they consider legitimate. .
Guess this will put an end to all of the Trump rallies, let’s see if Staley has the balls to make the first arrest.
John Stove says
Not only is this legally indefensible….it is to be expected from Republicans’.
If it stands in court (and thats a big “IF”)….
I will love to see it used against the Red Hat idiots standing on the street corners with the Trump 2024 flags as they mob intimidate people for not having the same point of view…..also use it against that Idiot council person who last year drove thru a Biden rally screaming at people, same thing when you see “Oath Keepers” or “Proud Boys” at some event again intimidating people, same thing for Neo-nazis, same thing for the traitor/insurrectionists who stormed the capitol on January 6th, or the “Trump Train” with their idiotic size flags on the back of their pickup trucks as they cut people off on the highway (remember the video of the Biden bus/rv incident?), same thing for the Trump flotilla that ignores the USCG rules of the road on the IntraCoastal and cause boats to swerve and run aground etc etc
I am all for law and order but this is is very very stupid piece of legislation but to be expected from Dumbsantis.
I guess the democratic lawyers are filing suit so their people can burn, loot, and destroy while protesting, without problems from the police. Protest is fine, it’s the other stuff that is criminal.
Yeak like storming the Capital building 1/6/21. I will say IMO This gets struck down quickly. We shall see.
Trailer Bob says
Just another day in paradise…
Bill C says
This law makes it easier for anyone who injures a protester, such as by driving into a crowd, to escape civil liability by claiming they were fleeing an intimidating mob. DeSantis thinks he’s James Bond.