Florida passes bill to crack down on riots, but critics warn it threatens peaceful protest

Florida legislature passed legislation that its backers say aims to crack down on riots and property damage, but others argue it will have a chilling effect on peaceful protests and is a threat to free speech. By Veronica Stracqualursi and Pamela Kirkland, CNN

(CNN) -- The Florida legislature passed legislation that its backers say aims to crack down on riots and property damage, but the bill's opponents argue it will have a chilling effect on peaceful protests and is a threat to free speech.

House Bill 1, titled "Combating Public Disorder," will increase penalties for assault, battery, burglary and theft, and battery against a law enforcement officer during a riot, and prohibits the damaging or defacing of memorials or historic property.

The bill now heads to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' desk for his signature after the Republican-led Florida Senate approved the bill Thursday on a near party line vote of 23-17. The bill had passed the GOP-majority Florida House in late March.

DeSantis, a Republican, had proposed the measure last year following a summer of nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in May by Minneapolis police officers and after former President Donald Trump's largely derided protesters as violent and urged governors at the time to aggressively target them. The recent fatal shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright near Minneapolis by a police officer has spurred further unrest.

Florida Republicans insist the bill is about enhancing safety and preventing violence, while Democrats argue that peaceful protesters could be wrongly detained and claims it targets minority communities.

"The bill doesn't adequately protect the public, the peaceful public, exercising their constitutional rights," Democratic state Sen. Audrey Gibson said on the floor Thursday before the vote. "We have some differences in our philosophy [...] and I hope that we would all want to protect those who are calling attention to their plight, and not suppress the oppressed."

The bill's sponsor previously argued the penalties in the bill are necessary to prevent violent unrest, like what happened during the Capitol insurrection in Washington, DC, on January 6.

But Democratic state Sen. Perry Thurston argued, "House Bill 1 is not and never has been aimed at the insurrection. It was always aimed at Black Lives Matter."

It would create two new crimes of "mob intimidation" and doxing an individual, or electronically publishing someone's personal information with the intent that the person would be threatened or harassed.

The bill would require an individual arrested for such offenses committed during a riot to be held in custody until their first court appearance -- preventing them from immediately posting bail. It creates a minimum six-month imprisonment for a person convicted of battery against a law enforcement officer during a riot.

In response to some Democrats' calls to "defund the police," the Florida measure would allow an appeal if a municipality reduces its police budget.

If signed into law, the bill would create an affirmative defense for a defendant in a civil action who claims they were defending themselves or their property against a rioter, which Democrats raised concerns over whether this would encourage vigilantism.

Back in March, one of the bill's main sponsors, GOP state Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, insisted that "an individual who injures peaceful protesters would not be able to use this affirmative defense" and that his legislation would not expand Florida's Stand Your Ground law.

"If H.B. 1 becomes law, this legislation will silence dissent and infringe upon the public's First Amendment right to peacefully protest and assemble. Protesters peacefully marching or rallying on any issue will face the threat of criminal prosecution anytime a protest turns violent through no fault of their own," Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement last week.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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