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Florida's controversial 'anti-riot' law blocked by a federal court

A federal judge has blocked enforcement of Florida's "anti-riot law," saying it "encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement."
Image: Ron DeSantis
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis answers questions related to school openings and the wearing of masks, in Surfside, Fla., on Aug. 10, 2021.Marta Lavandier / AP file

As the year got underway, several Republican-led states embraced anti-protest measures, which were designed to punish those who take to the streets to dissent. It wasn't exactly a secret that GOP officials were motivated in large part by last year's social-justice protests, held in the wake of George Floyd's murder by a police officer in Minnesota.

Florida officials went further than most, creating a controversial "anti-riot" law in April, which faced long odds in the courts. Indeed, as The Miami Herald reported, a federal judge yesterday blocked Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida sheriffs from enforcing a key portion of the state statute.

A federal judge on Thursday temporarily blocked Gov. Ron DeSantis and three Florida sheriffs from enforcing a key portion of the state's so-called anti-riot law, in part, because it "encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement." The definition of what constitutes a riot under a new state law pushed by the governor is too vague "to the point of unconstitutionality," U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of Tallahassee wrote in his preliminary injunction order.

In a 90-page decision, the federal judge also described the recently enacted law as "vague and overbroad."

For those who may need a refresher, let's revisit our earlier coverage to review what made the Sunshine State's law such a mess.

Right off the bat, one of the most obvious problems with the statute was its provision that said if someone feels intimidated by three people, that may constitute "mob intimidation," which can be punished by up to a year behind bars.

As Paul Waldman explained, that was really just the start. The same law "forbids people charged under the law from being released before their first court appearance, forcing them to languish in jail potentially for days, even if they would have otherwise been quickly processed and released."

Florida's policy said those who topple monuments could face lengthy prison sentences. If protesters block a road, Florida drivers who plow into them, claiming self-defense, were given civil liability protection by the GOP-created statute.

The same state law made it practically impossible for local communities to reduce their police budgets, regardless of their fiscal circumstances, while also making local governments potentially liable for damages as a result of riots or unlawful assemblies.

The point was hardly subtle: Republicans hoped to create a chilling effect for Floridians inclined to exercise their First Amendment rights.

As a Washington Post analysis put it in April, "If you're a protester in Orlando, you might think twice about organizing a protest if you know that police have expanded powers to declare riots and impose felony punishments. Much less if you know that drivers will feel fewer constraints about how they respond if confronted with a protest."

Making matters just a bit worse, in July, when Cuban-American protesters shut down a Florida highway to protest developments in Havana, Florida didn't enforce the law – perhaps because it was the governor's political allies who were the ones in the streets.

Yesterday's ruling was a preliminary injunction order, blocking enforcement of the state law because, as the judge put it, it's "a likely unconstitutional statute." DeSantis said he hopes to prevail on appeal.