A so-called anti-riot bill passed by the Florida House on Friday would create increased penalties and new crimes for people who participate in violent protests, though opponents say it will have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech.
The bill passed 76-39 after nearly five hours of debate, with Republicans saying the measure is needed to protect law and order, and Democrats saying it was drafted in an effort to quash protests by groups like Black Lives Matter.
“It seems that freedom of speech was free up until Black and brown people started talking,” said Democratic Rep. Tray McCurdy, who said he protested the death of George Floyd last year. “If this bill were law last summer … instead of being a member of the state House, I’d probably be a member of somebody’s jailhouse.”
Republicans said the bill wouldn’t affect freedom of speech protected by the U.S. Constitution, but rather protect people and property.
“The First Amendment doesn’t protect violence,” said Republican Rep. Cord Byrd.
Byrd then listed many provisions in the bill, including increased penalties for assault, battery, burglary, and theft during a riot and new crimes like mob intimidation and defacing and damaging a memorial or historic property.
“Which of those crimes do you think should be legal? Which one of the actions that this bill would prohibit do you think should be lawful?” Byrd asked.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis first called for the legislation in September after a summer of demonstrations around the country to protest the death of Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer placed his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The proposal came less than two months before the presidential election, when DeSantis’ close ally, then-President Donald Trump, was campaigning on a law and order message and harshly criticizing Black Lives Matter protests.
Since then, Republicans backing the bill have pointed to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters as another reason to support it.
Among other provisions, the bill would require a person arrested during a violent protest to be held in jail until a first court appearance. It would also create a mandatory minimum six-month sentence for anyone convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer during a riot.
“There are violent elements in society, there is evil in society, and when they try to destroy things, when they try to turn the discussion into destruction, we need to stand up,” said Republican Rep. Jason Fischer. “Mass violence is not welcome here in Florida.”
The bill also has language that seeks to keep local governments from reducing law enforcement budgets. It would also lift civil liability protections for local governments that fail to take appropriate action to protect property and people during a violent protest.
A similar Senate bill hasn’t had a committee hearing.
Florida House votes to crack down on violent protests