U.S. District Judge Mark Walker has issued a preliminary injunction against Florida’s anti-riot law, at the request of the plaintiffs who have filed suit against the state. Walker called the law unconstitutional and said it could be “a trap for the innocent.”
The law, originally known as HB 1, was signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a response to last year’s riots engulfing major American cities in the wake of the George Floyd incident.
At the time of the signing, DeSantis said the bill, now law, safeguards constitutional rights.
“This legislation strikes the appropriate balance of safeguarding every Floridian’s constitutional right to peacefully assemble while ensuring that those who hide behind peaceful protest to cause violence in our communities will be punished,” DeSantis said in April. “Further, this legislation ensures that no community in the state engages in defunding of their police.”
Immediately after the bill became Florida law, it faced legal challenges from civil rights groups saying it unconstitutionally sought “to arrest the peaceful expression of free speech.”
In his ruling, Walker said the unconstitutionality of the law centered around the vagueness of the term “riot.”
“HB1’s new definition of ‘riot’ both fails to put Floridians of ordinary intelligence on notice of what acts it criminalizes and encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, making this provision vague to the point of unconstitutionality,” Walker’s order said. “It requires individuals to ‘speculate as to the meaning of penal statutes,’ at the risk of their liberty.”
The Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said it is glad to see Walker’s ruling against a “racist” law.
“This is a significant victory for the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville and all civil rights groups throughout the United States,” the group said to First Coast News in Jacksonville. “This is just one battlefront victory against a racist law. The legal war won’t be over until the court finally agrees with us that HB 1 is too vague, too broad and unconstitutional.”
DeSantis’ communications director, Taryn Fenske, said the governor’s administration “vehemently disagrees” with Walker’s ruling and will soon be appealing.
“There is a difference between a peaceful protest and a riot, and Floridians do not want to see the mayhem and violence associated with riots in their communities,” Fenske said.
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