Heaven help us if court upholds DeSantis’ assault on free speech in Florida | Editorial

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Of all the bills rammed through by the Florida Legislature this session — sometimes revived late at night and then quickly passed by GOP lawmakers — the most egregious remains House Bill 1.

It’s Gov. Ron DeSantis’ baby, and he has already signed it into law.

The session is about to end, but HB 1 set the stage for this year’s legislative theme: Strip power from local governments, and trample Floridians’ constitutional rights underfoot.

Civil-rights attorneys from a nonprofit called the Lawyers Matter Task Force, and additional plaintiffs, have already filed a lawsuit challenging the governor’s new law, concocted to have a chilling effect on those who take to the streets to protest for rights denied — long an American tradition that Florida’s governor suddenly wants to curtail.

This lawsuit is one of the best things to come out of a mean-spirited legislative session that has resulted in few things to cheer.

HB 1 is an insidious law, anti-democratic and un-American, an edict some autocrat might have cooked up.

An attempt to silence

Aimed at clamping down on social-justice demonstrations, the bill increases penalties for crimes committed during protests, but also allows even peaceful protesters and uninvolved bystanders to be swept up and hauled in by police during protests where violence occurs.

Black Floridians, especially, say it’s an attempt to silence their demands for social justice — most recently invigorated after the death of George Floyd last year.

Before signing the bill into law, DeSantis said, “We wanted to make sure that we were able to protect the people of our great state, people’s businesses and property against any type of mob activity or violent assemblies.”

“Mob activities” and “violent assemblies” are unacceptable. But so is letting police decide what exactly is a “riot” and cast the broadest net possible over people in the vicinity of a protest. HB 1 ignores the fact that strong laws against such violence and property destruction already exist.

Worse, HB 1 creates a new category of violent criminal behavior — then, callously, protects it.

The law gives cover to vigilantes and counter protesters who injure or kill “rioters,” letting them escape liability in a civil lawsuit.

What’s a riot?

“House Bill 1 is a horrendous injustice to Florida citizens and infringes on multiple constitutional rights,” said Shannon Ligon, who founded the group that’s challenging the new law in federal court in Orlando. It names as defendants DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Orange County Sheriff John Mina.

Under the new law, peaceful protests could be “characterized as a “riot” due solely to the misconduct of one or two individuals, the plaintiffs wrote.

The law, among other things, creates a new felony crime of “aggravated rioting” that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a new crime of “mob intimidation,” which makes it unlawful “for a person, assembled with two or more other persons and acting with a common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will.”

But there is still something called freedom of speech, and Floridians should fervently hope the court reminds the governor of that.