Federal lawsuit against FL’s new riot/protest law expands; protesters proceed with caution

Black Lives Matter: Tampa hosted this protest march in June 2020 and plans to host another this Saturday. Credit: BLM Tampa Facebook

A federal lawsuit challenging Florida’s new anti-riot/anti-protest law has gained strength with the addition of Black Lives Matter: Tampa and Community Empowerment Project as plaintiffs.

They joined in a lawsuit filed April 21 by Lawyers Matter Taskforce and Legacy Entertainment & Arts Foundation, both based in Orlando.

Black Lives Matter: Tampa plans to hold a peaceful protest in Tampa on May 15, mindful of the greater risks posed by Florida’s new law.

The lawsuit charges that the “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act” — passed by the Legislature as House Bill 1 and signed into law by the governor on April 14 — violates constitutional rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, particularly by people of color protesting the police killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people in 2020.

Black Lives Matter, operating in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, resists white supremacy and violence against Black people. It was founded in 2013 when the killer of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, Black, Florida teen, was acquitted of murder.

Community Empowerment Project is a branch of Earthworks, a non-profit that advocates for social and environmental justice.

The new plaintiffs joined the Lawyers Matter lawsuit April 30.

Summonses were issued Tuesday to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and Orange County Sheriff John Mina, who are ordered to respond by the end of this month.

“[House Bill 1] targets protests against the murders of minorities at the hands of police officers – including the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain,” says the amended complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Orlando Division.

Black Lives Matter: Tampa held just such a protest in Tampa on April 24 without incident, 10 days after DeSantis signed HB 1 into law and five days after a jury in Minneapolis convicted fired policeman Derek Chauvin of three counts of murder in Floyd’s killing while in custody.

On Friday, Chauvin and the three officers with him while he killed Floyd were charged with federal civil-rights violations, according to the Associated Press.

Black Lives Matter: Tampa claims in the lawsuit that the new anti-riot/anti-protest law is making it hard to drum up participation and sponsorships for its next protest, on May 15.

“DeSantis’ signing of the Bill into law on April 19th, 2021, generated what appears to be the intended effect … The ability of Plaintiffs to conduct peaceful demonstration without fear of retaliation was impaired. Plaintiffs are no longer able to obtain co-sponsors or co-organizers since the other persons fear criminal prosecution under the Bill for organizing demonstrations,” the complaint says.

The new law is similar to legislation and executive orders filed or enacted in 44 other states, according to a tracker maintained by the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law.

It intensifies penalties — up to 15 years in prison — for rioting and looting crimes that already were on the books; creates new crimes such as “mob intimidation;” provides for the arrest of an entire group of protesters if any disorder breaks out; requires members of that group to be jailed at least overnight; holds organizers of a protest liable for injuries or damages if disorder breaks out; and shields motorists from liability if they strike or kill a protester in a public roadway and claim it was in self-defense.

Further, the new law holds municipalities liable if they fail to stop a riot, and it bans them from reducing their funding for law-enforcement activities, even when shifting dollars to public-safety programs that result in fewer violent encounters between police and the policed.

The lawsuit says the “breathtaking sweep” of the new legislation makes peaceful protesting dangerous for protesters, while doing little if anything to deter thugs intent on causing violence and looting.

“Plaintiffs must choose between encouraging and advising peaceful demonstrations, on the one hand, and exposing themselves to prosecution and civil liability under the Denounced Laws, on the other. Refraining from encouraging and advising peaceful demonstrations constitutes self-censorship at a loss of Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights,” the lawsuit says.

DeSantis and his Republican allies said they wanted to send a message that police and property are safe in Florida, the governor said.

“It is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country,” the governor said at a press conference where he signed HB 1 into law. “There’s just nothing even close.”

Critics argue this is theater strategically choreographed to whip up support for DeSantis’ political ambitions among conservative voters in Florida and elsewhere.

DeSantis called for the legislation that became HB 1 in September in the wake of peaceful protests organized by Black Lives Matter and significant but isolated violence that broke out in connection with those.

In Florida, violence included the burning of a sporting-goods store in Tampa. A suspect was apprehended and pled guilty to arson under state and federal laws in effect at the time, according to Tampa news outlets.