WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (WWSB) - Surrounded by law enforcement officers from around the state, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a controversial law-and-order bill that was one of his top priorities for the legislative session.
At a news conference in Winter Haven, DeSantis formally signed the bill (HB 1), a day after it cleared the state Legislature.
“It is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There’s nothing even close,” DeSantis said before signing the bill.
DeSantis announced a framework for the legislation in September, after protests across the nation in the aftermath of the May death of George Floyd, a 36-year-old Black man who died after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes.
DeSantis and other Republicans contend the bill is needed to crack down on violent protests, but Democrats and civil-rights groups argue it would infringe on First Amendment rights and disproportionately lead to crackdowns on Black protesters.
The proposal, titled “Combating Public Disorder,” would create a new crime of “mob intimidation,” enhance penalties for riot-related looting and violence and create an affirmative defense for people who injure or kill violent protesters.
During a debate, Thursday, Senate sponsor Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, argued that the proposal would not quash First Amendment rights, which include the right to peacefully protest. “What this bill does not protect is violence,” he said. “Rights have limits, and violence is where the line is drawn. This bill is about preventing violence.”
But Democrats said, in part, that the bill would criminalize protests against racial injustice. “At its core, House Bill 1 is racist,” Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said. “I stand here with my colleagues today, not just mourning the death of our First Amendment rights but also mourning the death of our democracy as it slowly slips away from us.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat and frequent critic of DeSantis, blasted the bill in a statement Monday. " This governor and his Republican allies love to talk about the Constitution while shredding it with extreme legislation like HB 1,” she said in a statement. “Silencing the speech of those seeking equality is straight from the Communist regime playbook. The criminal aspects of this bill are already illegal. HB 1 protects no one, makes no one safer, and does nothing to make people’s lives better.
“The message from this Governor and his enablers is loud and clear: if you disagree with him, you will be silenced,” Fried said.
But conservatives hailed the new law. At Monday’s news conference, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd pointed to the unrest in other cities such as Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis, and Seattle.
Showing photos of peaceful protests contrasting with riots, Judd issued a warning. “This is a peaceful protest,” he said while showing a photo of people marching. “We encourage it.”
Holding up another image of a burning building, he said, “This is a riot. And this will get you locked up before quick in the state of Florida. Pay attention. We’ve got a new law. And we’re going to use it if you make us.”
“We only want to share one thing,” Judd said, noting that hundreds of people are moving to the Sunshine State every day. “Welcome to Florida. But don’t register to vote and vote the stupid way you did up north, or you’ll get what they got.”
The bill proposes a host of changes to criminal and civil laws. The new crime of “mob intimidation” would make it unlawful “for a person, assembled with two or more other persons and acting with a common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will.”
The bill also addresses the destruction of “memorials,” an issue that has drawn heavy attention after statues of people associated with slavery were torn down or destroyed following Floyd’s death.
The measure also would create a new felony crime of “aggravated rioting” that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
During a recent debate in the State Senate, Sen. Bobby Powell, D- West Palm Beach, asked whether the bill would have negatively affected civil rights legends such as the late Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Do you believe that this piece of legislation could stifle the future heroes and leaders that could impact not just the state but this nation?” Powell asked.
Burgess argued that the enhanced penalties and new crimes are necessary.
“We can’t allow riots and violence to prevail within our society. We are a nation of law and order and we need to govern ourselves as such,” he said.
Democrats also questioned whether the bill would give law enforcement officials too much leeway to interpret what would be considered a “peaceful protest.”
The measure would establish an “affirmative defense” for defendants in civil lawsuits involving deaths, injuries, or property damage if the injuries or damages were sustained while plaintiffs were participating “in furtherance of a riot.”
Critics assert that provision would lead to vigilantism, pointing to the 2017 death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va. Heyer died after a car rammed into a group of counter-protesters at a white supremacist rally.
But Burgess said the bill is aimed at protecting people who cause damage or injury with their vehicles if they are in fear for their safety.
“That person rammed a vehicle into those people to hurt them. He wasn’t defending himself. He rammed it into them purposefully to hurt them, to kill them, to cause damage. That is not OK and that is in no way shape or form protected in this bill,” he said. “If in the course and conduct of trying to defend your family by getting them to safety, that is where this would apply, not with somebody with the intention to actually go out and hurt somebody. That would never be OK.”
-- Material from News Service of Florida was used in this report.