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Florida's controversial anti-riot law remains temporarily blocked

Judge's gavel on table in office
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The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has left in place a temporary injunction on HB1, while a legal challenge to the new law moves through the courts.

A controversial measure that critics argue chills Floridians' right to peacefully protest remains blocked as a legal challenge to the new law moves through the courts.

“We can continue to exercise our constitutional rights, and not worry about being arrested under the racially discriminatory provisions of HB1,” said Ben Frazier, a civil rights activist with the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, one of the plaintiffs suing to block the law.

HB1 establishes a definition for rioting in state law and increases penalties against those convicted of the crime.

Plaintiffs argue that the definition is vague and overly broad, meaning law enforcement could prosecute innocent bystanders if a riot breaks out at a peaceful protest.

Here's how HB1 defines riot:

"A person commits a riot if he or she willfully participates in a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons, acting with a common intent to assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct, resulting in: Injury to another person; damage to property; or imminent danger of injury to another person or damage to property."

Gov. Ron DeSantis has argued that the definition of riot in HB1 is more narrow than the common law meaning of riot, defined as "a tumultuous disturbance of the peace by three or more persons, assembled and acting with a common intent, either in executing a lawful private enterprise in a violent and turbulent manner, to the terror of the people, or in executing an unlawful enterprise in a violent and turbulent manner."

"We are pleased that the 11th Circuit did not adopt the district court’s view that the statute is unconstitutional, and we look forward to defending our interpretation of state law in the state’s highest court," said Jeremy Redfern, deputy press secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis, in an email.

HB1 includes a provision exempting peaceful protestors from being charged of a crime, a fact that DeSantis has noted in his appeal of the lower court's injunction.

In August, a United Nations committee issued a report stating that laws like HB 1 “unduly restrict the right to peaceful assembly.”

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has left the injunction in place until it receives input from the Florida Supreme Court on its interpretation of who can be charged for rioting under the new state statute. The state's highest court is moving forward with answering that question.

“The litigation is ongoing and continuing," Frazier said. "No one knows for certain how it’s going to turn out, but it appears the governor is losing yet another major legal battle.”

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.