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'Anti-Riot' Bill Moves Quickly Through FL House, Not Yet Heard In Senate

Man in blue suit at a podium speaking
The Florida Channel
The Florida Channel
Republican Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls speaks to press following passage of "anti-riot" bill on Friday, March 26, 2021.

A controversial bill that aims to crack down on violent protests has passed the Florida House and is on its way to the state Senate.

Florida lawmakers spent hours in debate over HB 1 - the Combating Public Disorder bill -often referred to as the "anti-riot bill". The bill would strengthen penalties against those convicted of committing violent crimes during a protest. It would also create new offenses, including mob intimidation, cyber-intimidation and demolishing historic monuments.

“We do not need to have Miami or Orlando or Jacksonville become Kenosha or Seattle or Portland," said Republican state Rep. Cord Byrd, explaining why he believes the bill is needed now. "You can exercise your right to speech and to protest peaceably, but you cannot commit acts of violence. You cannot destroy their property. You cannot destroy their lives.”

The state Senate version of the bill - SB 484 - hasn't received a committee hearing. And the House version hasn't yet been placed on the Senate calendar for a vote.

Republican state Sen. Danny Burgess is one of the bill's sponsors. In an interview with WFSU News in January, Burgess expressed confidence that the measure would pass in both chambers and ultimately end up on Gov. Ron DeSantis's desk.

"This bill is a culmination of a lot of work," Burgess said. "We want to make sure what we do is done right and stands legal muster."

Democratic state lawmakers have called the bill’s language vague and a threat to First Amendment rights.

Legal experts have argued that the policy is redundant because people are already getting arrested in Florida for destroying property or assaulting others during a protest.

The bill was recently amended to clarify that only those engaged in violent protests could be arrested and charged. But the bill doesn’t define what counts as a peaceful protest.

Democratic state Rep. Ben Diamond of St. Petersburg, who's also a licensed attorney, argued the bill's language is "vague" and could lead to people getting arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights.

“The way this language is written it means people can be arrested even if they’re not necessarily engaging in that kind of conduct. That’s what’s so troubling," Diamond said. "And it’s not just my reading of it. We’ve gotten, as a legislature, hundreds of letters from law professors that are looking at the same thing saying this is vague and this is confusing.”

The bill has generated controversy from protesters across the political spectrum. Opponents have spoken out at committee meetings, protested outside the State Capitol building and have called and emailed their representatives.

Democratic state Rep. Andrew Learned shared with fellow lawmakers that he’d received more than 14,000 emails about the bill. “All but six of them were in opposition," he said. "This has united self-described socialists with police chiefs [and] Trump rioters with Black Lives Matter protestors — all in opposition.”

Democratic State Rep. Kamia Brown spoke about the role civil disobedience has played throughout U.S. history in bringing about positive change. Brown said the proposed measure runs counter to the principles of democracy.

“This nations’ founders knew back in the 1700s of the power of protests and the power of the people," Brown said. "As he worked with white and black abolitionists who were mostly church leaders, Frederick Douglass said: 'Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.'”

Democratic House lawmakers also called the bill a distraction from more pressing issues facing Floridians, including access to health care, affordable housing and unemployment. State Rep. Tray McCurdy blasted Republican leadership for prioritizing the bill when many residents across the state continue to struggle due to the pandemic.

“For this bill to have the distinction as HB1 is a sign that our priorities do not reflect the correspondences that most of our offices received from our constituents. Floridians are living amidst a global pandemic, thousands of lives have been lost, businesses shuttered and thousands are out of work, but this - HB 1 - is the priority of this body. Is this the most important priority? No.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.