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Florida House bill that cracks down on violent protests clears another hurdle; critics say it would chill free speech

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Dibya Sarkar

Managing Editor

Thursday, March 4, 2021


A Florida House subcommittee Wednesday approved a controversial bill, which would enhance penalties for crimes committed during peaceful protests, despite angry opposition from dozens of citizens and Democratic lawmakers, who said the measure would stifle free speech, target minorities and be a financial burden.

The Republican-controlled House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee signed off on HB 1 (SB 484 in the Senate) — called “Combating Public Disorder” — on a 10-5, party-line vote. Its focus was to review the fiscal impact of the bill, but many in the hearing weighed in on its social impact. The bill now moves to the Judiciary Committee before heading for a full House vote.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed the legislation in September following nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. HB 1 creates and enhances penalties for riots and intimidation. It would also penalize local governments that interfere with police matters during protests and  force them to justify reductions in their police budgets.

Democrats on the committee said there are laws on the books that address crimes committed during riots and HB1 is unnecessary and would be too costly.

“We do not need this bill,” said ranking member Michael Gottlieb, a Broward County Democrat, who called it an “oppressive measure to stop the people from speaking.” As a practicing criminal defense attorney for 29 years, he added: “These enhanced penalties are not going to deter anyone at any point in time if they feel their civil liberties are being violated.”

Gottlieb also warned that the bill would have an “indeterminate fiscal cost” at a time when the state and municipalities are facing significant financial issues. Democrat Rep. Andrew Learned of Brandon said the subcommittee “is going to essentially be writing a blank check because we don’t know what this is going to cost and that’s what we’re being asked to do in the middle of the worst fiscal crisis of a generation.”

The bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, a Republican from Miami-Dade, defended the bill from Democratic colleagues who peppered him with hypotheticals about its cost and the burden it may place on the corrections system. At the end of the hearing, he said: “The first responsibility of government is to make sure our residents are safe. The fiscal impact is not lost on me. But if you behave lawfully or peacefully you have nothing to worry about. But if you participate in violence or commit a crime, you must pay a penalty even if it’s a burden on the law-abiding, tax paying residents.”

But his Democratic colleague on the subcommittee, Rep. Christopher Benjamin of Miami Gardens, said the bill hasn’t been thought out with regard to the unintended consequences it might cause, adding that there’s an opportunity to prevent any future harm from occurring including a financial impact. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars … will cause a burden upon our criminal justice system, a burden upon our Department of Corrections system.”

Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Benjamin said: “‘And he said that [a riot] is the language of the unheard.’ Then he said that, ‘Social justice and progress are the only guarantors against riots.’”

During most of the two-hour hearing, state residents voiced their opposition to the bill. Subcommittee Chair Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, said at the beginning of the meeting there were 68 people signed up to speak although about four dozen wound up at the dais.

Plakon limited their time to one minute each to give lawmakers time to discuss and debate the bill. He said he would not tolerate any outbursts or use of profanity that could lead to a trespass warning. During the hearing, he kicked out two people: one woman for going well over her one-minute limit and another man who said “fuck.” Both were Black.

All who spoke angrily denounced the bill, saying lawmakers were trying to curtail their free speech rights. Many were Black, Latino and young. Some identified themselves as affiliated with university and/or Democratic Party associations, teachers, faith leaders and local residents. Many said they came from far-flung areas of the state to be heard.

Marq Mitchell, founder of Chainless Change, a social justice organization in Fort Lauderdale, told lawmakers that people’s rights were gained through freedom of assembly and speech. “It is entirely too expensive to incarcerate people because of their decision to gather and speak out about the issues that need to be addressed in their communities.”

Like many other speakers, Mitchell said that lawmakers shouldn’t focus on the “symptoms” such as protests but address underlying causes such as unemployment, housing and other issues “plaguing” communities. He added that when the pandemic started last year, no masks were given to those incarcerated in Broward County. “The only way that we were able to ensure they had masks and sanitizer was by gathering together to protest.”

Many called the bill “unconstitutional,” “fascist” and “racist.” They said it would have a disproportionate impact on people of color. Some said the bill is overly broad and is designed to intimidate or muzzle protestors. Others called it a power grab by DeSantis.

Ida Eskamani, affiliated with civic organizations Florida Immigrant Coalition and Florida Rising and whose LinkedIn profile says she’s an Orlando resident, says the state has a “mass incarceration problem” with 70,000 inmates and 24,000 workers. She said there’s “good bipartisan work” underway to address this problem, but HB 1 “undermines all that good work at the cost of our fundamental, God-given constitutional right and taxpayer dollars.” She said rather than deal with issues of homelessness, addiction and mental health, the solution has become incarceration.

“Now, peaceful protest, we incarcerate,” said Eskamani. She said the legislation would have an economic impact, as well, on people and described it as a “job killer.”

Under the legislation, authorities could charge a person — just for being present at any protest against police brutality and where property or physical damage occurs — with a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine, said the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which opposes the bill. FRRC also said that anyone who takes down a Confederate statue could be charged with a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. 

Trish Neely, secretary with the League of Women Voters of Florida, said her organization is against the bill as it was currently written. She said the League has ideas and is working on language that would improve the bill while supporting the sponsors’ intent.

“We support keeping individuals and property safe but not at the expense of the right to free speech and peaceful protest,” she said. “We also believe strongly in sovereign immunity and keeping law enforcement funding at the local level.”

One young man, who identified himself as a high school senior in Leon County and an active member of the social justice group Dream Defenders, pointed out that a core principle among organizers is the safety of their supporters “no matter what the subject matter” of protests. He said organizers teach de-escalation and other safety measures during training. “We take these measures very seriously, and we take extra precautions to ensure that peaceful protesting never does escalate into an aggravated assault.”

Several people didn’t get to speak, but Plakon read the names of five people, including representatives of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood and American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, who were against the bill and two — including Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association — who supported the bill.

Note: The story was updated at about 5 p.m., March 4, with comments from the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

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