The increase of protest activity has been felt nationwide this year. As the reasons to protest continue to vary, so do the reactions by local and state governments. Certain states have even started looking into their current protest laws to see if those laws are still relevant and effective for today's society. Florida is one of these states, and the updated proposals hold some of the strictest penalties in the nation to date.
What Has Governor DeSantis Proposed for the New Protest Laws?
- You would run the risk of getting a felony for participating in a protest that resulted in road blocks or property damage.
- You would risk liability under the state's racketeering laws if you organize a protest or donate money to a protest.
- Those who drive cars into a gathering of protesters would be granted protection, even if someone is seriously injured or dies from the crash.
- Any local government that cuts budgets for law enforcement would risk losing state funding.
Is Florida the First State to Propose Changes to Protest Laws This Year?
No, Florida would actually become the second state to pass new laws in regards to protest activity. Tennessee became the first state to make changes to protest laws this year when Governor Bill Lee passed new laws after weeks of protests at the Nashville capitol. One of the major changes in Tennessee legislature is that it is now a felony to set up camp on state property.
The Varying Sides of Penalties for Protesters
Just like there are two sides to every story, there are at least two sides to the proposed changes for protest laws.
Those who support the proposal see it as a major deterrent for criminal activity like looting and destroying property. When DeSantis recently announced his proposal, he did so with the sheriffs of multiple Florida counties standing with him. Polk County Sherriff, Grady Judd, said, “For everyone across the United States today, this is what leadership looks like.” DeSantis and his supporters are hoping the laws will be accepted in November of this year instead of waiting until the normal legislative session takes place in early 2021. Supporters explain these new laws are meant to protect the general public from agitators who will go so far as to burn down buildings and incite violence with large crowds. The hope is to set rules in place to keep this from happening before it has a real chance to happen. Though no Florida city has seen the type of destruction caused by rioting in cities like Minneapolis, Louisville, or Portland this year, DeSantis proactively declares, “I will not allow this kind of violence to occur here in Florida.” The Orlando Sentinel reports, “In addition to establishing an upgraded penalty for battering law enforcement during a violent or disorderly assembly, DeSantis has proposed subjecting ‘anyone who organizes or funds' such an assembly to the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act, typically used to go after gangs and drug cartels.” Violations of Florida's RICO Act can lead to a punishment of up to 30 years in prison.
Those against the proposal are worried that such harsh consequences would simply deter those wishing to peacefully protest legally. With laws already in place against destroying property, rioting, and using violence against police, some are worried the new laws against “agitators” would exist in a dangerously gray area. Most of the new proposal includes the phrasing “disorderly assembly,” which some believe can be easily misconstrued based on context. Protesters may be scared to practice their constitutional rights if they are now going to run the risk of being seen as an agitator while peacefully protesting. Additionally, if these laws are adopted, punishments could include, at least, a mandatory six months in jail, the loss of unemployment benefits, and the loss of government jobs. Another point of discussion is the denial of bond without first seeing a judge if these updates are passed. Right now, you can post bail and be dismissed until your first court hearing, but under this proposal, you would have to see a judge to get permission to post bail and leave.
Tips for Peaceful Assembly
If you find yourself in an opportunity to peacefully protest, for whatever cause or reason, there are a few things you can do to make sure the experience is as positive as possible:
- Do not touch anyone. Touching can lead to hitting, and hitting can lead to fighting. In a large group setting, fights can easily escalate and everyone involved will be held accountable. Simply bypass this by not touching anyone at all.
- Do not wear a disguise. Wearing a face mask for safety reasons is acceptable. Any other kind of disguise may be seen as a means to intimidate. The threat of intimidation is a main reason why peaceful protests can quickly turn aggressive.
- Do not disturb anyone else's assembly. If someone is in an opposing protest group, let them be. Keep your focus on yourself.
- Do not damage anyone's property. This is clearly breaking a law and you will be punished.
- Do not resist lawful arrest. This will complicate things in an already tense situation. For a peaceful assembly, do what you can to keep the peace in the assembly.
Before you protest, make sure you understand the current laws. If you live in Florida, anticipate the possibility that these laws can change in the upcoming months. For any further questions or concerns on peaceful assembly in Florida, contact a trusted lawyer today at Keller Melchiorre & Walsh.