The Florida Senate on Thursday passed, largely along party lines, a controversial anti-riot bill that was pushed by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
The bill would increase criminal penalties for assaulting law enforcement officials while engaging in a “riot” and defacing monuments and other public property during riots. It would also penalize local governments that interfere with law enforcement efforts to contain riots and set up a citizen’s appeal process when cities and counties try to reduce police budgets in response to riots.
The final vote in the Senate was 23-17, with one Republican voting with Democrats in opposition. The bill passed the GOP-controlled House in late March. Democratic legislators argue that it would create a chilling effect on First Amendment rights and restrict political dissent. Republicans argued that it would protect law enforcement officers and prevent public disorder.
GOP state Sen. Ed Hooper said during the bill’s contentious debate that the legislation was not about racism but about “law and order.” Democratic state Sen. Jason Pizzo, who criticized the bill, tweeted after it passed that “this legislative session will likely get its own custom box of Cards Against Humanity.”
DeSantis, who championed the legislation, said in a statement after it passed that he “looks forward” to signing the measure. He is expected to do so as early as next week.
“This legislation strikes the appropriate balance of safeguarding every Floridian’s constitutional right to peacefully assemble, while ensuring that those who hide behind peaceful protest to cause violence in our communities will be punished,” DeSantis said in a statement. “Further, this legislation ensures that no community in the state engages in defunding of their police.”
Since the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, at least 13 states have taken up legislation to crack down on protests. The push, critics say, is a revival of broader anti-protest efforts that emerged during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that rocked the country last summer.
In addition to Florida, legislators in Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington filed bills that critics say use the violence at the Capitol to target social justice protests more broadly. Many of the bills are similar or identical to the ones introduced in those states last year.
The majority of the bills use almost identical language and suggest similar penalties, most of them establishing third-degree felonies for property damage, injuring a person or obstructing roadways; second-degree felonies for destroying or toppling monuments; and first-degree misdemeanors of harassment for confrontations in public spaces, such as confronting elected officials in restaurants. The legislators also propose hefty fines and mandatory jail sentences from 30 days to four years depending on the offense.
The bills in Florida, Indiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Virginia and Washington would redefine a riot or an unlawful assembly as three or more people partaking in “tumultuous activity.”