Protesting Florida’s Protest Bill

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

A potential law that critics claim stifles free speech and makes public protest risky business passed the Florida House of Representatives recently, and political organizers around the state are sounding the alarm as the bill awaits a stage before the Senate.

Among those raising concerns locally is Jamil Davis, North Florida organizer with Black Voters Matter, who points out that people involved in organizing protests that devolve into what the bill terms a ‘riot’ risk being held legally responsible.

“If something happens at the protest, you’re now facing 15 years,” Davis said a few days after the House passed HB 1.

HB1, otherwise known as the Combating Public Disorder bill, passed on a party-line 76-39 vote on Friday, March 26. Both of Northwest Florida’s state legislators, District 1’s Michelle Salzman and District 2’s Alex Andrade, voted in favor of the measure.

The proposed bill prohibits “a person from willfully participating in a specified violent public disturbance resulting in specified damage or injury,” It also reclassifies the penalty for an assault committed in furtherance of a riot or “an aggravated riot” and prohibits “cyber intimidation by publication.” The bill also provides an appeals process for local elected officials facing a reduction in law enforcement budgets. Also, the bill creates “an affirmative defense to a civil action where the plaintiff participated in a riot.”

Davis, who was active in organizing and participating in racial justice protests over the past year, as well as electorally-themed events, described Florida’s Combatting Public Disorder bill as the “most dangerous anti-First Amendment bill that there’s been.”

“What this means for organizers, protesters, people in general, is that we keep pressure on the senate,” Davis stressed.

While HB 1, or its companion bill in the Senate, SB 484, has yet to receive a hearing in the Senate, political organizers are still sweating the potential for its passage. The new risks it would impose to political and social justice protesting would alter the way planners approached their missions.

“We sit down, and we strategize about how we organize around the parameters that the state legislature has put in place,” Davis said, pondering the possibility of the bill’s passage.

The organizer said he’s hopeful that the state senate never takes up the protest bill but also suspects legislators are simply delaying action in an attempt to wear out the bill’s opponents.

“They get us to the point to where we’re tired, to where we grow tired and weary,” Davis said. “The problem is, in Pensacola, tired-and-weary is not something that’s in our vocabulary; it’s not in our repertoire.”

Black Voters Matter is among the groups organizing a local protest to voice opposition to the Combating Public Disorder bill. The rally is scheduled for April 8, at 3 p.m. at the Escambia County Courthouse.