A federal judge temporarily paused anti-riot legislation to counter extreme social unrest across Florida on Sept. 9.
The U.S. Northern District of Florida, Tallahassee Division Court will not let law enforcement officers arrest radical protesters, even if they create a public disturbance.
District Judge Mark Walker ruled the Combatting Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act, defines public disorder so vaguely it effectively criminalizes free speech.
“Vagueness permits those in power to weaponize its enforcement against any group who wishes to express any message that the government disapproves of,” he said in the preliminary injunction order. “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.”
The remarks came after civil rights activists accused the legislation of subjecting Black citizens and so-called peaceful protesters to “unlawful arrest, injury and even death.” Extreme anarchist protests quickly spread across the nation after Minnesotan George Floyd died in custody during May 2020.
“Our administration believes there is a fine line between peaceful protest and violence,” Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez (R) said when the bill was signed into law. “We have seen our nation’s communities ravaged by rage, anger, rioting, and chaos. Our democracy cannot afford to blur the lines between peaceful assembly and violence.”
The legislation penalizes robbery, arson, battering, violence and other riot-related offenses. It detains anyone convicted of rioting until their first court date. Individuals can be imprisoned for up to six months if they assault a police officer during a riot. It also cracks down on vandalism at Confederate monuments, memorials, sculptures, and other historic sites.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) rejected the judge’s interpretation of the bill, and claims the legislation does not prohibit peaceful demonstrations.
“We vehemently disagree with today’s decision but this case was always going to be decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals,” he said in a statement obtained by Reuters. “There is a difference between a peaceful protest and a riot, and Floridians do not want to see the mayhem and violence associated with riots in their communities.”