Tallahassee, FL – A federal judge ruled on Thursday that the anti-riot law championed and signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was unconstitutional and unenforceable.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said in a 90-page decision that he found the anti-riot law “vague and overbroad,” WTVJ reported.
Walker said the language of the law amounted to an assault on the First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, as well as a violation of the Constitution’s due process protections.
The judge said people who were not engaged in rioting but happened to be doing something else in the same area when a protest turned violent could be criminally charged and face stiff penalties under the new law, WTVJ reported.
“If this court does not enjoin the statute’s enforcement, the lawless actions of a few rogue individuals could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians,” Walker wrote.
“It unfortunately takes only a handful of bad actors to transform a peaceful protest into a violent public disturbance,” he added.
The lawsuit to stop enforcement of the anti-riot law was spearheaded by the Florida NAACP, Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward, Dream Defenders, and a number of other groups who have alleged the law was specifically created to stop minorities from protesting, WTVJ reported.
Attorneys for the governor have argued that the new law draws a distinct line between peaceful protest and violent riots.
But the judge did not agree, WTVJ reported.
“Because it is unclear whether a person must share an intent to do violence and because it is unclear what it means to participate, the statute can plausibly be read to criminalize continuing to protest after violence occurs, even if the protestors are not involved in, and do not support, the violence,” Walker wrote in the ruling. “The statute can also be read to criminalize other expressive activity, like remaining at the scene of a protest turned violent to film the police reaction.”
Activists were outraged when the bill was signed into law in April.
America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida Executive Director Micah Kubic had called the bill “racist, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic,” and said that it was “purposely designed to embolden the disparate police treatment we have seen over and over again directed towards Black and brown people who are exercising their constitutional right to protest.”
“This bill is a disgrace to our state,” Kubic said.
The measure gave civil legal immunity to motorists who drive through groups of people blocking roadways, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
It also established a mandatory six-month jail sentence for anyone convicted of battering a law enforcement officer during a riot and would deny bail for anyone charged in connection with a riot until after they have made their initial court appearance.
“This bill is about preventing violence,” the bill’s sponsor, Senator Danny Burgess (R-Zephyrhills), said during the debate on the Senate floor.
Burgess shot down allegations that the bill would shield drivers who might target protesters by intentionally ramming into them, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
“That is no way protected in this bill,” he said.
He said the provision would only apply to motorists who are trying to protect themselves from demonstrators.
The law also said that rioters who destroy paintings, flags, memorials, plaques, structures, or any other object established to honor historical events or people can be charged with a felony offense that carries a possible 10-year prison sentence, the Associated Press reported.
Local governments that attempted to interfere with the police response to violent riots could have been stripped of civil liability protections under the measure.