WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law on Monday a sweeping bill that he says will increase punishment for people who violently riot, loot and destroy property, and punish cities that don’t protect lives and property and attempt to redirect funding for law enforcement.
But detractors say the law violates First Amendment rights to free speech and targets Black communities, which protested last summer following the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. DeSantis signed the bill on the day the jury in the trial of former officer Derek Chauvin, charged in Floyd’s death, received the case.
Among many things, the “Combating Public Disorder” law:
- Allows the state to circumvent local authority and punish municipalities that attempt to reduce or eliminate funding for law enforcement
- Allow businesses damaged or destroyed in lootings or riots to sue municipalities that don’t provide law enforcement protection
- Increases legal charges for people who assault anyone, particularly law enforcement, or damage property during a riot
- Revises the prohibition on obstructing traffic by standing on the street
- Prohibits protesters from using or threatening to use imminent force against another person
- Requires a person arrested for rioting to be held in custody until their first appearance in court
- And prohibits defacing, injuring or damaging a memorial or historic property, including flags
“It is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country and there’s just nothing even close,” DeSantis said at a Monday morning press conference before signing the bill. “If you riot, if you loot, if you harm others, particularly if you harm a law enforcement officer, during one of these violent assemblies, you’re going to jail.”
DeSantis was particularly critical of calls to “defund,” “unfund” or reduce funding for law enforcement agencies.
‘We must show up no matter what’:Foreboding air as people gather in George Floyd Square ahead of Chauvin closing arguments
“Some local governments are telling police to stand down while cities were burned, while business were burned and people were being harmed. That’s a dereliction of duty,” DeSantis said, referring to Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis, which saw weeks of rioting last summer.
About two dozen law officers and state officials — all of them white — stood behind DeSantis as he made his announcement. Those who spoke all said the law upholds people’s constitutional right to protest.
Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson helped spearhead the DeSantis initiative through the upper legislative body. He acknowledged its controversy.
“Somehow, this became a political punt issue, and I don’t know how it’s political to say, ‘I’m going to protect law enforcement, we’re going to protect people’s property and there’s going to be rules of engagement if you decide to riot,” he said.
What are the charges against Derek Chauvin? Here’s what the jury is considering for the death of George Floyd
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd held up photographs of people having fun at Disney World, the beaches and in parks. And he held up photographs of people peacefully protesting, contrasting them with people rioting.
“I want to make sure everybody knows this is a peaceful protest — we encourage it. It’s the foundation of our country and we want people to peacefully protest when they feel the need,” Judd said. “This is a riot and this will get you locked up quick in the state of Florida. Pay attention.”
‘Silencing speech is what communist regimes do’
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s lone statewide elected Democrat, ridiculed DeSantis and Republican leaders for embracing a measure she says defies free speech rights.
“Republicans love to talk about the Constitution, but they’re shredding it with bills like House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 90 (a controversial elections overhaul). Silencing speech and blocking the vote is what communist regimes do. HB 1 should never have been signed,” said Fried, who is widely expected to challenge DeSantis in next year’s governor’s race.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said the legislation, which cleared the House and Senate along partisan lines, criminalizes Floridians who choose to exercise their First Amendment rights.
A number of civil rights organizations have already said they will likely seek to have the new law blocked by courts on constitutional grounds. The legislation was among the most controversial bills going before the Legislature, drawing dozens of opponents at every committee stop – while few Floridians stepped forward to speak in favor of the change.
“Economists have warned that the bill will cost taxpayers millions of dollars, creating new jail beds in a mass incarceration system that is already over-bloated and on the brink of collapse,” said Mikah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
“It makes no effort to heighten penalties for driving cars into protesters, rather it shields violent counter-protesters from civil liability if they injure or kill a protester or demonstrator,” he added. “The bill also protects shrines to white supremacy with enhanced charges for damaging Confederate monuments or the Confederate flag.”
Follow Kimberly C. Moore on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.