Florida’s HB1 protest law gets date set for first legal test

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Black Lives Matter Tampa march in East Tampa. Saturday, April 24, 20201. Chandler Culotta/WMNF

Florida’s controversial HB1 will get its first major legal test next month. A coalition of organizations including the NAACP, Dream Defenders, ACLU and more filed to immediately strike section 15 from the bill.

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The date is set for August 30.

Chief Judge Mark Walker will hear from the coalition of organizations suing Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and others during a U.S. District Court hearing in Tallahassee. In May, the groups filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the entire law. But last week a motion was filed for a preliminary injunction to immediately remove section 15 from the 20-section bill.

Krystina Francois is a co-founder of the Black Collective, a non-profit organization that focuses on political education and engagement. It’s also one of the organizations suing Moody and DeSantis. She said HB1 was a direct response to civil unrest during the summer of 2020. She said it’s designed to intimidate minority activists and their allies fighting systemic racism and police abuses.

“This is retribution for effectively organizing Black communities around the country,” Francois said. “Saying that ‘this is not gonna happen in our state. How else are we to take it if not to say that it’s targeting us.”

During an April signing event, DeSantis acknowledged HB1’s connection to that unrest.

“We put out a vision for the State to maintain being a law and order state,” he said. “We saw really unprecedented disorder and rioting throughout the summer of 2020. And we said that’s not gonna happen here in the state of Florida.”

BLM protests were mostly peaceful

But DeSantis’s statement might not have been entirely accurate. A study from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project looked at thousands of Black Lives Matter protests between George Floyd’s death and August 22 of last year. It found 93 percent of protests were peaceful.

Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren opposed HB1. He said Florida already has laws against rioting. Adding more were unnecessary and would only quell freedom of speech, not make Florida safer.

Francois said that’s’ already begun.

“We have canceled community gatherings, she said. “There are many of our partners and members who would like to be in the streets. However, they don’t feel safe doing so. Because they don’t know if their protest is going to be deemed a riot.”

That, Francois said, is exactly why Section 15 needs to go.

Section 15

Section 15 changes what constitutes a riot and adds new classes of crimes. That includes aggravated inciting a riot and aggravated riot. But critics say the definitions are vague and create a guilt-by-association class of crimes. Even peaceful protesters could be charged with felonies if a protest is deemed a riot. That could cost someone their right to vote, own a firearm and obtain housing or employment.

It also casts a shadow on exercising the First Amendment protest protections. Something, Francois said, that has been essential to all manner of equality battles. Adding it’s been especially crucial to Black American’s struggle for civil rights.

“There is a long-standing and rich history in our country, in our civil rights movement on being able to uplift issues of injustice by having demonstrations,” she said.

While HB1’s language is broad, much of it rests on the definitions and crimes defined in Section 15. Losing it could signal a death knell to the law.

But DeSantis has maintained the law is strong and entirely constitutional. He and the other defendants are looking to have the whole suit thrown out.

The fate of section 15, and the first fight against HB1, will be decided in just over a month.

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