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Florida's 'anti-riot' bill takes immediate effect, legal challenges likely

A peaceful protest in downtown West Palm Beach in Summer 2020.{ } (WPEC).{ }
A peaceful protest in downtown West Palm Beach in Summer 2020. (WPEC).
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As Governor Ron DeSantis signed Florida's controversial HB1 into law, legal challenges and sharp criticism were mounting against the new law -- despite assurances from the governor and other lawmakers that it would be used only to curb violent riots and not against peaceful protestors.

The law -- previously referred to by proponents as an 'anti-rioting' bill and by opponents as an 'anti-protesting' bill, was unveiled last September by DeSantis and other Republican leaders. The governor signed it into law Monday alongside the President of the State Senate, Speaker of House, and members of law enforcement.

It stiffens penalties for people who block highway traffic, damage property, and assault police during a riot. The bill also denies bail to people arrested during a riot until they see a judge and are arraigned.

Further, it creates a civil defense for people who injure protestors during a period of civil unrest, which free speech groups warn could lead to increased violence against demonstrators. Opponents of the bill argue it is racially motivated.

"We saw really unprecedented disorder and rioting throughout the summer of 2020 and we said that’s not going to happen here in the State of Florida," DeSantis said before signing the law. "It is the strongest anti-rioting pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There’s just nothing even close."

In his remarks, House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) assured Floridians that peaceful protestors would not be impacted by this new law.

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"There's nothing in this 60-page bill that makes it a crime to be a peaceful protestor," Sprowls said.

But, Palm Beach County activist Bryce Graham isn't so sure. Prior to the bill passing the Senate, he told CBS 12 News he was concerned the legislation would scare some Floridians away from peaceful protesting out of fears they could be swept up and arrested alongside violent demonstrators.

"Not only does it hurt our constitutional right to protest but its coming after people of color," Graham said.

Meanwhile, First Amendment attorney Lawrence Walters tells CBS 12 News if the law is shown to discourage people from protesting, that could be grounds for a federal lawsuit. A law can be deemed unconstitutional if it has a so-called "chilling effect," making someone less inclined to engage in a constitutionally protected right.

"[If] the mere existence of the law can cause people to not exercise their constitutional rights, that is a "chilling" of First Amendment rights and that would be a basis of which to challenge the law on its face."

Walter added that groups like the ACLU could also wait to challenge the law in individual cases if plaintiffs are charged with underserved, enhanced penalties under the new statute.

James K. Green, former President of the Florida ACLU and current Chair of the Palm Beach County ACLU Legal Panel, told CBS 12 News the organization will be taking legal action against the new law. He described that a potential case will involve a plaintiff who was "chilled" in the exercise of their First Amendment rights by the new law.

"We’re going to wait and see how and if it is enforced," Green said in an interview shortly after the governor signed the bill into law.

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