Florida judge rules against state's anti-riot law

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A Florida judge ruled against the state’s controversial anti-riot law on Thursday, calling it unconstitutional and an attack on the First Amendment in a win for Black Lives Matter and other groups. 

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee temporarily blocked enforcement of the bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in April. 

In his 90-page decision, Walker called the law “vague and overbroad,” saying peaceful demonstrators could face penalties or jail time under it if they’re in the vicinity of unaffiliated rioters.

“If this court does not enjoin the statute’s enforcement, the lawless actions of a few rogue individuals could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians,” he wrote. “It, unfortunately, takes only a handful of bad actors to transform a peaceful protest into a violent public disturbance.”

The lawsuit was filed in April by Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward, the NAACP Florida Conference, Dream Defenders and other groups who claimed it was deliberately aimed at people of color. 

FILE – In this Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 file photo, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks in Pembroke Pines, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
(AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

DeSantis called Walker’s ruling a “foreordained conclusion” and guaranteed he would win on appeal with the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Taryn Fenske, communication director for DeSantis, said the administration “vehemently disagrees” with Walker’s decision and “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,” Politico reported. 

The plaintiff groups and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida in a joint statement said, “As states around the country threaten to pass similar legislation, today’s decision serves as a powerful reminder that such unjust and unconstitutional efforts cannot stand.” 

While state lawyers argued the law makes a sharp distinction between protesters and rioters, Walker said the “statute can plausibly be read to criminalize continuing to protest after violence occurs, even if the protestors are not involved in, and do not support, the violence” because of the vague way the law was written. 

“The vagueness of this definition forces would-be protesters to make a choice between declining to jointly express their views with others or risk being arrested and spending time behind bars, with the associated collateral risks to employment and financial well-being,” Walker added, according to Politico. 

Another judge also ruled against DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates in schools again on Wednesday, saying “We are not in normal times. We are in a pandemic. We have children who cannot be protected by a vaccination.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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