How a federal judge’s decision to temporarily block Florida’s anti-riot law could affect protesters nationwide


(NEW YORK) — In the wake of a Florida judge calling the state’s anti-riot law unconstitutional, advocates are saying it should serve as a warning to other states looking to implement similar legislation.

Chief Judge Mark Walker sided Thursday with civil rights groups suing Florida who alleged HB1 deters and punishes peaceful protests. Walker argued the language in the law was “vague to the point of unconstitutionality” and temporarily blocked the law from being enforced while legal challenges continue.

“Its vagueness permits those in power to weaponize its enforcement against any group who wishes to express any message that the government disapproves of.” Walker wrote. “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.”

Plaintiffs in the case praised the judge’s decision, saying it will contribute to the safety of protesters not just in Florida but across the nation.

“We’re happy about it, we’re happy that people can continue to take to the streets, and can continue to protest and feel safe doing so.” Jessika Ward, press secretary for Dream Defenders, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told ABC News. “We don’t want people to be in harm’s way and be arrested, just for, you know, saying how they feel and speaking up for injustices happening in our country.”

HB1, which was touted by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, as necessary to protect law and order during protests, was passed on partisan lines earlier this year and was part of a growing movement from mostly Republican-backed legislatures around the country to pass similar legislation after 2020 was marked by demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The laws criminalize protests that turn violent and adds harsher penalties for people participating in these demonstrations, whether they were perpetrators or not.

Since the murder of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, 11 states have passed anti-riot legislation and at least 231 bills cracking down on protests have been introduced across 45 states, according to the nonpartisan International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which tracks legislation targeting the right to protest.

Florida’s court decision could set a precedent for other states who are trying to or have already passed similar legislation. North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed anti-riot legislation in his state a day after HB1 was temporarily blocked. That legislation would have also imposed harsh penalties for protesters charged with rioting.

While state lawmakers could bring a veto override, activists in North Carolina say what happened in Florida could dim those prospects.

“I’m hopeful that the court decision could actually discourage them from even trying to override the veto. Because, you know, maybe they’ll just see the writing on the wall,” said Ann Webb, a policy analyst of the ACLU of North Carolina.

In Oklahoma, civil rights groups are preparing for a similar legal challenge as in Florida for their state’s anti-protest legislation set to take effect Nov. 1. The law uses vague and overbroad vocabulary and discourages participation in protests by criminalizing it lawyers allege in the filing.

As states continue their legal challenges, lawyers say Florida serves as a powerful reminder for how constitutional freedoms will be upheld in court.

“Just as bad laws have a dangerous way of being contagious, orders striking down bad laws or recognizing their unconstitutionality equally sends a message.” Max Gaston, a staff attorney of the ACLU of Florida told ABC News. “I think it’s a powerful reminder that such unjust and unconstitutional efforts cannot be tolerated and that courts will not tolerate them.”

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