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The problem(s) with Florida's new penalties for protesters

The point of this law is hardly subtle: Republicans want Floridians to think twice about exercising their First Amendment rights.


The New York Times reports today that there's "a wave of new anti-protest legislation, sponsored and supported by Republicans," designed to impose "punitive new measures" on those who take to the streets to dissent.

Arguably no state has gone further than Florida. The Miami Herald reported this week:

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday put a cap on one of his top legislative priorities by signing an "anti-mob" legislation into law back where it all began. Flanked by sheriffs and Republican legislative leaders in ruby red Polk County, DeSantis signed legislation that, among many things, will immediately enhance criminal penalties for crimes committed during protests that turn violent.

The Republican described the bill as "the strongest anti-looting, anti-rioting, pro-law-enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There's just nothing even close."

At first blush, that characterization is likely to be popular with much of the public. After all, the pro-looting, pro-rioting contingent tends to be quite small.

But as is always the case, the details matter. For example, Florida's new law says 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 yesterday, that's 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." Those who topple monuments now face up to 15 years in prison. If protesters block a road, Florida drivers who plow into them, claiming self-defense, now have civil liability protection.

Local communities will now find it practically impossible to reduce their police budgets, regardless of their fiscal circumstances, since governors can now override such decisions. What's more, local governments can now be held liable for damages as a result of riots or unlawful assemblies.

In case these provisions weren't quite enough, according to the ACLU of Florida, if someone turns violent at a protest, other protesters may be charged with a felony, even if they remained peaceful.

The point of such a law is hardly subtle: Republicans want Floridians to think twice about exercising their First Amendment rights. Proponents of such a measure are concerned with public reactions to abuses, not abuses themselves.

As a Washington Post analysis put it, "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."

At DeSantis' bill signing, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, declared, "We're a special place, and there are millions and millions of people who like to come here and, quite frankly, we like to have them here. So we only want to share one thing, as you move in hundreds a day: Welcome to Florida. But don't register to vote and vote the stupid way you did up north, or you'll get what they got."

Ah. It's the part of the story in which a southern sheriff tells northerners not to vote in a way he considers "stupid."

Against a backdrop in which Republican officials are already eyeing voting restrictions on par with Jim Crow policies, Grady Judd's comments -- which the governor seemed to enjoy -- were a little on the nose.