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Demonstrators march in a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Miami, Florida on June 6, 2020. (Photo: Adam DelGiudice/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

'A Win for Civil Rights': Federal Judge Blocks Florida GOP's Anti-Protest Law

The court's decision, said a coalition of civil rights groups, "serves as a powerful reminder that such unjust and unconstitutional efforts cannot stand."

Kenny Stancil

Civil liberties and racial justice advocates are celebrating after a federal judge ruled Thursday that Florida's anti-protest law is unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable.

In his 90-page decision (pdf) granting civil rights groups' request for a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the law—passed by Florida's GOP-controlled House and Senate and signed in April by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in response to demonstrations against police violence and racial injustice—violates rights to free speech and peaceful assembly as well as due process protections.

The ACLU of Florida explained that a key provision of H.B. 1 "redefines the crime of 'riot' and imposes harsh penalties for those arrested under the law," including peaceful protesters.

Alluding to Florida's history of slapping anti-segregationists with baseless charges of incitement and rioting during the Jim Crow era, Walker enjoined DeSantis and three Florida sheriffs from enforcing the riot definition established by Section 15 of the law.

"If this court does not enjoin the statute's enforcement," Walker wrote, "the lawless actions of a few rogue individuals could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians."

The court's ruling came in response to a motion filed in July by the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU of Florida, the Community Justice Project, and private attorneys on behalf of Dream Defenders, the Black Collective, Chainless Change, Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, and the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville.

In May, the same plaintiffs filed a lawsuit contending that Florida's anti-protest law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by repressing legally protected activities and criminalizing those who advocate for social change.

Following Thursday's ruling, the coalition said in a joint statement that the "decision enjoining enforcement of a key provision of H.B. 1 will greatly contribute to the safety of Black organizers and others affected by this unjust law."

"H.B. 1 effectively criminalizes our constitutional right to peacefully protest and puts anyone—particularly Black people demonstrating against police violence—at risk of unlawful arrest, injury, and even death," the groups continued. "This targeting of protesters is shameful and directly contradicts our Constitution. We are glad the court has agreed to suspend enforcement of this key provision while we continue to advocate to ensure that protesters in Florida can safely exercise their right to speak out against injustice."

While DeSantis and Republicans in the Florida legislature presented H.B. 1 as a response to the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters, the measure was first proposed by DeSantis last September in reaction to the nationwide marches that erupted after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in May of 2020.

"H.B. 1 was passed as a direct response to racial justice protests in 2020 and appears designed to target those who protest police violence," the civil rights coalition said Thursday. "Among other concerning provisions, the law risks criminalizing peaceful protest and shields those who injure or kill protestors—for example, by ramming their vehicles into protestors—from civil penalties."

GOP lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 bills this year to stifle dissent and criminalize people who demonstrate against police violence, fossil fuel pipelines, and other injustices. In addition to Florida's H.B. 1, punitive and discriminatory anti-protest laws have been passed in seven other states: Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

"As states around the country threaten to pass similar legislation," the coalition added, the court's "decision serves as a powerful reminder that such unjust and unconstitutional efforts cannot stand."

NPR reported Thursday that DeSantis plans to challenge Walker's order at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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