A federal judge in Florida blocked enforcement of the “anti-riot” law the state enacted in the wake of last year’s racial justice protests, calling it overbroad and unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker granted a preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of the law, which was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the law in April.
The bill, HB1, defines a riot in a way Walker stated was vague and could be used as a weapon to attack constitutionally protected speech.
” If the Court doesn’t enjoin its enforcement, the lawless acts of a few individuals could criminalize the protected speech if hundreds, if perhaps thousands of law-abiding Floridians,” Walker wrote. This is a violation of the First Amendment. “
The bill was introduced and passed following protests last summer over George Floyd’s death. Derek Chauvin .
Critics claimed that the bill is too vague and broad and does not clarify whether someone could be found guilty of participating in larger demonstrations where violence has occurred.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund declared that the decision was a “major victory for civil rights and advocates of racial justice.” Along with other groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and others, it sued for a variety of groups.
“H.B.1 effectively makes it illegal to peacefully protest, and places anyone — especially Black people — at risk of being unlawfully arrested, injured and even killed,” the plaintiffs stated in a joint statement on Thursday. “This targeting protesters is shameful, and directly contradicts our Constitution. “
DeSantis stated that the state would appeal the decision of the federal District Court, Tallahassee.
” We will win that appeal. DeSantis stated, “I guarantee that we will win that appeal.”
Walker began his 90-page ruling by noting other instances in Florida when people were arrested for challenging Jim Crow laws under the pretext of a riot. He wrote, “What’s the past is prologue.”
Walker stated that the new law was vague enough to allow for the criminalization of protests that continue after violence has occurred, even though the protesters are not involved in violence or support it. He also suggested that it could be used to criminalize police officers reacting to a crime scene.
While those who sued said the bill was a direct response to racial justice protests, the judge wrote that “its vagueness permits those in power to weaponize its enforcement against any group who wishes to express any message that the government disapproves of. The law also increases the criminal penalties for assaulting police officers while participating in a “riot.” “
It also creates a second-degree felony for destroying or pulling down a memorial or historic property.
Phil Helsel is a reporter for NBC News.