Florida House OKs controversial DeSantis-supported bill that critics say will stifle free speech, peaceable assembly

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By
Dibya Sarkar

Friday, March 26, 2021

Managing Editor

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The Republican-dominated Florida House easily approved a controversial bill on Friday that many critics say would chill free speech and dissent and criminalize peaceful protest. The legislation will now be considered in the Senate.


House Bill 1 (Senate Bill 484), which is one of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top legislative priorities, passed 76-39, along party lines, after hours of debate. The legislation has attracted significant opposition from many civil justice groups, student organizations and other activists since it was introduced Jan. 6 (read related VoxPopuli story).


The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida called the bill’s passage “shameful.”


“It is clear certain legislators are more interested in earning political points with the governor than upholding the constitutional rights of their constituents,” said its executive director, Micah Kubic, in a statement. “We’ve said it before and will state it again: This bill is not intended to increase public safety. It is not intended to address any public need. Over 95 percent of protests across the state of Florida have been peaceful.”


While Republicans have said the legislation would not impact peaceful protests, critics disagreed. They said the bill would create new criminal charges for people who attend protests that turn violent even if they didn’t engage in violence as well as shield those who harm peaceful protestors from civil liability. The legislation would also allow the state to overturn municipal decisions to reduce their local law enforcement budgets, such as shifting dollars to other public safety programs. Plus, the bill would make it a felony to damage or destroy Confederate monuments.


DeSantis proposed the bill last September following Black Lives Matter protests against the police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota and other African-Americans across the country.


In talking with reporters before the vote, Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer said the legislation “could have a dramatic, chilling effect” not only on the right to free speech but also to the right to peaceably assemble. “This is clearly a slap in the face to people of color, to minorities,” he said. “It’s clearly a reaction to the peaceful protest we saw from the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer. And those were peaceful movements and assemblies.”


Farmer added the bill is “politically motivated” and that it’s “a solution in search of a problem” since there are numerous criminal statutes to protect people and property.


Before the vote, Florida Democrats tweeted a quote by Rep. Yvonne Hinson of Gainesville: "HB 1 is in direct conflict with the Constitution of the United States of America. In all its glory, this bill cannot replace it. It is unconstitutional.”


Republican State Rep. Anthony Sabatini of Lake County tweeted after he voted for the bill that it would “crackdown on the psychotic, angry, violent Antifa-led “protests” that have caused billions in damages and dozens of deaths. The radical leftist attack on the Rule of Law will NOT happen in Florida.”

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