Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a controversial “anti-riot” bill into law on Monday that “grants civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road,” according to The Orlando Sentinel.
The bill, which passed mostly along partisan lines, has been criticized by Democrats and civil rights groups as unconstitutional for infringing on the First Amendment’s right to protest.
“If you look at the breadth of this particular piece of legislation, it is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Winter Haven surrounded by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, uniformed deputies and other law enforcement. “There’s just nothing even close.”
Speakers including the governor described the law as something that would protect law enforcement and private property against rioters, despite also acknowledging that there was little violent unrest in Florida during last year’s George Floyd protests.
Opponents of the bill have criticized Republicans for what they say amounts to undermining residents’ constitutional rights.
Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, who is Black, said in a statement that the new law “undermines every Floridian’s constitutional rights, and it is disgusting that the GOP would rather empower vigilantes and silence voices than listen to the majority of Floridians who oppose this dangerous bill. The governor’s spectacle is a distraction that will only further disenfranchise Black and brown communities.”
The new law grants civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road, which Democrats argued would have protected the white nationalist who ran over and killed counter-protester Heather Heyer during the Charlottesville tumult in 2017. It also makes blocking a highway a felony offense.
The law also creates a broad category for misdemeanor arrest during protests, and anyone charged under that provision will be denied bail until their first court appearance. DeSantis said he wanted that to prevent people from rejoining ongoing protests.
But opponents say the law would make it easier for law enforcement to charge organizers and anyone involved in a protest, even if they had not engaged in any violent activity.
Image credit: Screengrab / WFLA News Channel 8 / YouTube