By Kenny Stancil
Decrying the passage of House Bill 1 in the Florida legislature on Friday, the state’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter warned that if the undemocratic anti-protest bill pushed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is passed by the state Senate and signed into law, it would “silence and criminalize” people who want to exercise their First Amendment rights to peacefully advocate for social change.
“It is shameful that this bill has passed in the House,” Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement. “It is clear certain legislators are more interested in earning political points with the governor than upholding the constitutional rights of their constituents.”
“We’ve said it before and will state it again,” Kubic continued: “This bill is not intended to increase public safety. It is not intended to address any public need. Over 95% of protests across the state of Florida have been peaceful.”
Kubic noted that “HB1 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 484, represent a blatant attempt to silence and criminalize speech that runs counter to the political agendas of those currently in power in Florida.”
“It is a political stunt designed by Gov. DeSantis that will further cultivate the disparate justice we’ve seen administered in Florida for years,” he added. “It is a rebuke of a year of historic expression where millions of people joined together to protest the continued killings of Black people at the hands of police.”
As Common Dreams reported earlier this year, progressives have been sounding the alarm that Republican lawmakers in multiple states are exploiting the deadly January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters to push for anti-protest bills, which critics say have nothing to do with stemming the tide of far-right extremism and everything to do with suppressing left-wing dissent and quashing protests against police brutality, fossil fuel pipelines, and more.
In an op-ed published earlier this year, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, and Ngozi Nezianya, counsel at Protect Democracy, argued that “Florida’s bill would use the tragic events to dress in sheep’s clothing DeSantis’ wolfish intent to become the arbiter of free speech.”
In Florida, Trump ally DeSantis promoted HB1 and SB484—punitive proposals that critics say are meant to repress Black Lives Matter and other social justice protests—on January 6, “the same day insurrectionists were storming the Capitol,” as journalist Christopher Cook pointed out earlier this year.
“It is a political stunt designed by Gov. DeSantis that will further cultivate the disparate justice we’ve seen administered in Florida for years. It is a rebuke of a year of historic expression where millions of people joined together to protest the continued killings of Black people at the hands of police.”
Micah Kubic, ACLU/Florida
Journalist Iliana Hagenah wrote at the time that DeSantis used the riots in Washington, D.C., attended by several neo-Confederates, as a pretext to “make taking down Confederate statues a felony” in Florida.
As the ACLU of Florida explained:
HB1 would send people to prison for up to 15 years for pulling down a Confederate flag or other shrines to white supremacy. It would subject any person present at any gathering that became violent through no fault of their own to felony charges, potentially leading up to five years in prison and the loss of their voting rights, even if the individual did not engage in any violent and disorderly conduct, among other provisions. It would also protect violent counter-protesters from civil liability for injuring or killing a protester with their vehicle.
According to an analysis of the legislation by the Florida Policy Institute, HB1 would expand the size of the state’s carceral system, costing taxpayers millions of dollars while depriving residents of fundamental rights. Kubic pointed out that “this political stunt will disproportionately harm Black and brown Floridians who seek justice in our state.”
As Chemerinsky and Ngozi explained, the bill would also “eliminate the authority of local governments to issue some of their own permits for protests and demonstrations [and] create civil liability for cities that do not use aggressive law enforcement tactics to crack down on demonstrations.”
“Provisions like these,” they added, “deliberately strike at the heart of what it means to live in our democracy.”
The Intercept’s Alleen Brown and Akela Lacy have argued that the GOP’s push for new anti-protest bills around the country reflects an attempt to “rebrand” earlier anti-democratic efforts to crack down on dissent, taking advantage of outrage over the right-wing attack on the Capitol to undermine demonstrations for progressive causes.
Florida’s HB1 and SB484 remain highly unpopular. According to a poll conducted by Florida Politics, 63% of the state’s voters view the legislation unfavorably. State Rep. Andrew Learned (D-59) told the news outlet that “his office had received 14,000 emails on the measure [and] only six of those emails were in support.”
In an op-ed published earlier this week, Gail Johnson, an at-large city commissioner in Gainesville, argued that “Gov. DeSantis wants to undermine our ability to hold our government accountable.” She urged state lawmakers to reject the bills, which attack “our collective right to protest” and use preemption to “block local leaders from doing our jobs.”
“The people of this great state have a fundamental right to free assembly. Our freedoms are non-negotiable,” Johnson added. “There’s no harm from allowing people to march freely, peacefully and unperturbed, but there is harm when our governor ignores the crises right in front of him, in favor of pursuing legislation that undermines our local power and silences our voices.”
Florida’s proposed anti-protest legislation has also provoked opposition across the nation. In a letter addressed to State House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-65) and State Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-10), more than 100 law professors throughout the country denounced HB1 and SB484, characterizing the bills as unconstitutional and “morally unconscionable.”
In his statement, Kubic said that “giving those in power the ability to quash dissent is perilous, extremely unwise, and profoundly un-American. And yet, that is what Gov. DeSantis and certain legislators are attempting to do.”
“It is now up to the Senate,” he added, “to heed the voices of Floridians, uphold their duty to the Constitution, and stop this bill from ever becoming law.”
Kenny Stancil is a Staff Writer with CommonDreams.
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