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Federal Court in Florida Bans Enforcement of Florida's Anti - Riot Law

Civil Rights Policy Brief #173 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | September 13, 2021

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Policy Summary

On September 9, 2021 Chief United States District Judge Mark E. Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida issued a preliminary injunction order in the case Dream Defenders v. DeSantis. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund of Florida, Inc., the ACLU of Florida and Community Justice Project brought a lawsuit on behalf of Dream Defenders and other Black – led organizations. The basis of the lawsuit was that HB1, known as the Combatting Public Disorder Law, violates the Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment by criminalizing legitimate protest activity. Chief Judge Walker’s order barred the State of Florida from enforcing the bill temporarily. After being passed by the Florida Legislature earlier this year, Governor DeSantis signed the bill into law on April 19, 2021.

HB1 sought to address the racial justice protests that had erupted in 2020. The bill created new definitions for the term “riot” and how a person could be charged with inciting a riot. A person acting together with only two or more persons that results in a violent public disturbance could be charged with inciting a riot. A person could also be charged under the new law if there is injury to another person or property or imminent damage to another person or property as a result of the gathering.

As a result of HB1 this lawsuit was brought by Plaintiff Dream Defenders against Gov. DeSantis. The order issued on September 9 is for a preliminary injunction which prohibits enforcement of the law until the case brought by the plaintiffs has been decided. LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis

The preliminary injunction issued by Chief Judge Walker does not close the book on HB1 but only serves to suspend the law while the case is being litigated. The case brought could still end up finding the law valid or it could find the law unconstitutional. But the way Chief Judge Walker wrote the order shows that the law has some structural weaknesses that will make it unlikely that it will pass constitutional muster.

The first thing that Chief Judge Walker did was begin his written order with the story of Florida A & M of Tallahassee students Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson from 1956. Both students, who were Black, were arrested for inciting a “riot.” All they had done was refuse to move out of the “whites – only” seats they were sitting in on the local city bus. By doing this, Chief Judge Walker was signaling that the current use of HB1 is no different from the use of “anti – riot” laws to uphold Jim Crow laws in Florida in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Connecting HB1 with racial incidents from Florida’s past is an effective way to illustrate how HB1 was being used to target racial justice protestors.

 

Photo taken from: First Coast News

But as his written order went on, Chief Judge Walker brilliantly illustrated how the law was severely flawed. One theme he continually returned to was how the law was “vague and overbroad.” A law that is deemed “vague and overbroad” cannot be enforced because the terms and phrases in the bill/law are open to multiple and varying interpretations. This means that a law can mean one thing in one situation and can mean another in the same situation. There is no specificity to provide guidance to citizens and law enforcement officials who are relying on the law as to how to behave. Chief Judge Walker went on to list numerous hypothetical incidents that may or may not run afoul of HB1. 

Photo taken from: Orlando Weekly

He asks what does “willfully participate in a violent public disturbance” mean? Does it mean actively taking part or merely being present while only holding a protest sign? What about giving a rioter a bottle to wash their eyes? Is this willfully participating in a riot? And, does violent actions caused by a minority of protesters implicate other attendees? Chief Judge Walker determined that the law as written does not offer answers to these situations and therefore the law was “vague and overbroad” and could not be enforced with any consistency.

While the order is only a preliminary injunction that temporarily prohibits the state from enforcing the law while the case proceeds, Chief Judge Walker has written a brilliant rebuttal as to why HB1 is flawed and likely not even constitutional. A law like HB1, which was clearly written to target racial justice protesters, should be permanently struck down and left as a relic of Florida’s past. LEARN MORELEARN MORE

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida – statement on federal court’s ban on HB1 enforcement.

Community Justice Project – Florida group’s statement on HB1 court decision.

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