A Federal Court in Florida Has Struck Down an Anti-Riot Bill
The US District Court for the Northern District of Florida's Tallahassee Division granted a preliminary injunction halting Florida's contentious "anti-riot" measure on Thursday, dealing a blow to Governor Ron DeSantis' central election pledge and a triumph to civil rights groups.
HB1 was enacted in response to the George Floyd demonstrations, which highlighted police brutality against people of colour. It established additional criminal penalties for demonstrators and gave the state the authority to override municipal financial planning for police services. The NAACP and the ACLU of Florida have claimed that the bill restricts Floridians' right to free expression and peaceful assembly under the First Amendment.
The majority of Judge Mark Walker's decision is predicated on a vague definition of riot.
The plaintiffs contended that it is unclear whether participating in a larger rally where violence occurs qualifies as "rioting," and that the language of HB1 empowers police officers to use "extreme force" against any group of individuals suspected of rioting. There is concern that if agitators join peaceful rallies, the new regulations may penalize peaceful demonstrators.
The plaintiffs' position was supported by the court, which stated that even a temporary violation of First Amendment rights is a significant and substantial damage that is not in the public interest.
Although the court agreed with the plaintiffs that the law could lead to increased racial profiling, it went on to say that the definition of "riot" is broadly defined and that its broadness works against its constitutionality.
Despite agreeing with the plaintiffs that the law could lead to increased racial profiling, the court went on to say that the definition of riot is so broad that it allows those in power to weaponize its enforcement against any group that wishes to express any message that the government opposes, and that its broadness works against its constitutionality.
Finally, Judge Walker issued the injunction to prevent the bill's definition of "riot" from being applied, noting that the state still had the authority to protect private property and public safety using the numerous tools at its disposal, as well as the lack of public interest in enforcing a likely unconstitutional statute.