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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Officials Say Anti-Rioting Bill Is An Attack On Democracy

woman on Zoom call
13th Judicial Circuit via Zoom
Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince spoke on behalf of the League of Women Voters in opposition to HB 1 Thursday.

An anti-rioting bill will be voted on by the Florida House Friday, but opponents spoke out against it in Tampa Thursday.

The Florida House is scheduled to vote Friday on a bill that would crack down on violent protests.

On Thursday, a former state Supreme Court Justice, a state attorney, and a former sheriff all voiced opposition to it.

The Combating Public Disorder bill (HB1) includes the addition of new criminal offenses to combat protests, increase penalties, and provide measures to protect taxpayers.

However, the three criminal justice officials speaking on a Zoom call in Tampa argued that the bill is an attack on democracy, saying it blocks First Amendment rights, doesn’t improve public safety, and doesn’t deal with Floridians’ “most pressing challenges.”

Peggy Quince, a former Florida Supreme Court Justice and representative of League of Women Voters, said HB1 is “un-American and an attack on First Amendment rights.”

“This legislation is not narrowly tailored to serve any legitimate government purpose, but instead has a chilling effect on the exercise of our rights,” Quince said. “I believe that any organizers of peaceful protests are going to be reluctant to exercise these rights because, in essence, they and all the other protestors are going to be subject to arrest without bail should anyone decide to engage in any unlawful activities.”

Quince added that the bill would also turn what are currently misdemeanors into felonies. This, she said, would lead to more people being put into the state’s prison system and create another issue for them -- losing the right to vote.

Andrew Warren, State Attorney for Hillsborough County, said the bill criminalizes participation in a riot, but its broad definition makes any large group of peaceful protesters accountable for as few as three members’ bad actions.

“If you have 100 people at an environmental protest or a gun rights rally, and the vast majority of them are peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly,” said Warren. “If just three of those people decide to smash your car window or throw something at a cop, every single person there is guilty of rioting, even though the other 97 didn't do anything wrong. This bill now makes it a felony.”

“That should terrify anyone who cherishes our Constitution, from people who want to protest racial injustice to people who want to assert their Second Amendment rights.”

Warren added that there are already existing laws that are powerful enough to limit unrest and hold violent people accountable.

Repeating something he’s said previously, Warren called the anti-protest bill an “unconstitutional waste of time.”

“The bill fails to address the most urgent needs of Floridians. We have hundreds of thousands of people out of work, families working harder than ever to make ends meet… COVID is still an issue…we need to improve our schools, protect our environment, and balance our budget,” said Warren. “And this is the number one legislative priority? It is government waste at its finest.”

Jim Manfre, former Flagler County Sheriff and a representative of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), said the bill insults law enforcement by suggesting that they aren’t “doing a good job” when confronted with “peaceful protesters or bad actors invading peaceful protests.”

“Legislation should address problems—this is a solution looking for a problem,” said Manfre.

Quince agrees that the bill isn’t what the state needs.

“It is truly an anti-protest bill and does nothing to enhance public safety,” said Quince.

“It's passed through all of these committees, despite every step. There have been numerous people who have voiced their opposition to this,” she added. “And I believe that there has not been sufficient attention paid to the opposition.”

A companion bill (SB 484) has not yet been taken up by any committees in the Senate.

Christina Loizou is a WUSF Rush Family/USF Zimmerman School Digital News intern for the fall of 2021, her second semester with WUSF.