A judge on Thursday halted portions of a Florida law Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has cast as an “anti-rioting” measure, arguing the law’s definition of a riot is “vague to the point of unconstitutionality” and could imperil peaceful protesters with strict criminal penalties.
Federal Judge Mark Walker issued a preliminary injunction barring DeSantis and several county sheriffs who were listed as defendants from enforcing the law’s definition of a riot, siding with a group of activist organizations that sued the governor four months ago and called the law — which imposes tight penalties for people linked to violent protests — “vague and overbroad.”
Walker took aim at a section of the law defining a riot participant as somebody who “willfully participates” in a “violent public disturbance” involving an assembly of at least three people who caused injury or property damage.
The judge said this definition could violate the First Amendment by ensnaring people who were present during a protest that turned violent but didn’t actually participate in any violence themselves, noting it “unfortunately takes only a handful of bad actors to transform a peaceful protest into a ‘violent public disturbance.’”
Walker said his ruling offers “narrow relief” and does not bar law enforcement agencies from enforcing the law altogether.
In a statement to Forbes, DeSantis’ office said it “vehemently disagree[s]” with the decision and plans on appealing the ruling at the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The plaintiffs applauded the decision in a joint statement: “[The law] effectively criminalizes our constitutional right to peacefully protest and puts anyone – particularly Black people demonstrating against police violence – at risk of unlawful arrest, injury, and even death,” they wrote.
“If this Court does not enjoin the statute’s enforcement, the lawless actions of a few rogue individuals could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians. This violates the First Amendment,” Walker wrote.
“We vehemently disagree with today’s decision, but this case was always going to be decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals,” DeSantis’ office said. “There is a difference between a peaceful protest and a riot, and Floridians do not want to see the mayhem and violence associated with riots in their communities.”
The law — signed by DeSantis in late April — lays out strict penalties for defacing historic properties, participating in violent protests, blocking highways or engaging in “mob intimidation” to induce people into changing their viewpoint. DeSantis proposed a bill to penalize unruly protests last year, citing last summer’s nationwide protests against police misconduct — some of which included elements of violence. Opponents have castigated this push, arguing Florida’s new law will punish peaceful protesters and is unnecessary because police already had legal recourse against violent actors. The Florida law was part of a nationwide wave of Republican-backed bills taking aim at some protesters.