Is FL anti-riot law an attack on free speech?
- The First Amendment of the US Constitution blocks Congress from laws that prohibit the “freedom of speech” or the “right to peaceably assemble.”
- On Monday, April 19, 2021, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Combating Public Disorder bill (HB 1), allowing citizens to sue their local government if authorities do not stop a riot, and defines “riot” as a “violent public disturbance involving three or more people acting with common intent resulting in injury to others, damage to property, or the imminent danger of injury or damage.”
- DeSantis garnered support for the bill based on the recent riots around the country (Seattle, Minneapolis, and Portland), but critics say it is a “reaction to a problem that hasn’t occurred in Florida.”
- The bill was signed ahead of the verdict of Derek Chauvin’s murder trial in the expectation of protests. As of Tuesday, April 20, Chauvin was found guilty of all charges in the death of George Floyd: second-degree murder, third degree murder, and manslaughter.
It's no coincidence that this anti-riot law is being signed now after the intense and tumultuous summer of 2020 that was full of peaceful protests mainly put on by the Black Lives Matter movement. These protests were misconstrued and manipulated into seeming like 'riots' by unhappy politicians. This anti-riot law 'allows the state to circumvent local authority and punish municipalities that attempt to reduce or eliminate funding for law enforcement'. The ability to demand the defunding of police is a part of free speech, regardless of whether or not lawmakers agree with that demand. Punishing people who call for this action is certainly attacking free speech.
The law also allows law enforcement and officials to 'define 'riot' as a violent public disturbance involving three or more people acting with common intent resulting in injury to others, damage to property, or the imminent danger of injury or damage.' As we witnessed last summer, the term 'riot' was thrown around quite a bit when addressing even peaceful protests. While the law defines 'riot' and gives law enforcement the right to punish and detain people more harshly, it doesn't provide any guidance on dealing with riots.
Until there is more accountability and training in law enforcement, it's wrong to allow them to use extra force and harsher punishments on those who may already be the targets of those law enforcement officials. United States citizens will be discouraged from participating in their right to free speech and peaceful protest, and the United States was founded on and improved by protests—that's where real change starts. Any threat to that, including this law, can't be allowed to exist.
Florida's new anti-riot legislation is not an attack on free speech; in fact, the law explicitly states that it 'does not prohibit constitutionally protected activity such as a peaceful protest.' Instead, the new Florida law is aimed at preventing lawful protests from turning into criminal, mob-led riots like the ones that erupted across the country last summer, which devolved into the burning, looting, destruction, and violence that resulted in nearly $2B in property damage and 24 deaths.
While the new anti-riot law does not curb free speech, it does deter criminal behavior in various forms. It increases penalties for violence and destruction, strengthens individual property rights, and provides accountability for states and municipalities that interfere with law enforcement response efforts by making them liable for civil lawsuits seeking damages for any illegal acts committed in the aftermath of the interference.
In addition to protecting individual property rights, the new anti-riot law specifies harsher penalties for damage done to monuments and other objects of historical significance. Criminal mobs have been put on notice that Florida will not tolerate civil unrest that turns into violence, looting, and destruction. Additionally, the new law seeks to prevent protesters from creating dangerous traffic tie-ups and lane closures by shielding citizens from civil lawsuits when they drive into protesters blocking their legal travel routes.
While opponents may try to label the new law as 'racist' (since that's the convenient way to try to de-legitimize anything in our cultural climate), the law stands on its own as a strong measure to prevent Florida from becoming a mob-friendly environment for future protests, and instead, one that's squarely on the side of defending law and order.