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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

A bill that bans the harassment of Florida's first responders clears its final committee

Police barricade protecting a crime scene
Andrew Sentipal
/
stock.adobe.com

Under the bill, people can be arrested for harassing a first responder if they are within 14 feet and have been given a warning.

It could soon be illegal to mouth off to police and other first responders on the job.

SB 184, which prohibits people from harassing officers, has passed its final committee stop in the Florida Legislature. Under the bill, people can be arrested for harassing a first responder if they are within 14 feet and have been given a warning. It defines harassment as trying to cause, quote “substantial emotional distress.” Violators could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

During committee on Wednesday, Hialeah Gardens Republican Senator Bryan Avila said his bill isn’t meant to keep people from recording or monitoring police and other first responders, but to give them a safe area to do their jobs.

“Imagine that in a pressure packed situation that you are responding to, in a manner of minutes where lives are literally at risk, I think 14 feet is an adequate enough buffer or space or distance for those law enforcement or medical professionals to work, and again, this is after giving a warning,” Avila said.

Critics of the bill said they are concerned that the vagueness of what constitutes “emotional distress” could be misused to keep people from getting within 14 feet to record. Abdelilah Skhir of the ACLU of Florida said during public comment that there are constitutional concerns about limiting the speech of bystanders.

“Denying citizens the right to oversee and scrutinize the work of public officials is an attempt to silence and criminalize those who speak up for what they believe is right, which is a core aspect of our democracy,” Skhir said.

The bill has been supported by most lawmakers at its committee stops, but that doesn’t mean it has avoided criticism. St. Petersburg Democratic Senator Darryl Rouson, who supported the bill, still has concerns that it could be misapplied in practice.

“I’m worried about the individual who has to defend himself when an officer misinterprets action for harassment, misinterprets the right to view with harassment. But I want to send a message that we support professional first responders doing their job,” Rouson said.

Both Senate and House versions are ready for a vote, and the proposal has received bipartisan support.

Tristan Wood is a senior producer and host with WFSU Public Media. A South Florida native and University of Florida graduate, he focuses on state government in the Sunshine State and local panhandle political happenings.