A Student's Take on HB1: Florida's Controversial Protest Legislation

Disclaimer: This article does not reflect Her Campus at Florida State University as a whole but simply represents the opinions of the individual.

This past week, the Florida House of Representatives amended and passed HB1, a legislation concerning public disorder, along a party line vote. Many Supreme Court justices, attorney generals and civil rights organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have objected to the many details that this bill includes concerning riots and protests. Hearing about this opposition, I decided to read the entire amended HB1 legislation myself. I can definitely see cause for controversy.

protest sign Photo by Micheile Henderson

The filing of this bill was no surprise. With the Republican majority having control of the Florida legislature and the summer of unrest all across Florida with the Black Lives Matter movement and increasing political polarization, it was really a matter of time before restrictions on free speech were attempted. Throughout the HB1 outline, most of the conversation focuses on public disorder in general in regard to any crimes committed in public areas or in aggression towards state officials. One interesting component to the sentencing and charging criterion is that throughout the bill, an individual who commits a crime with the “furtherance of a riot or an aggravated riot” is charged one degree heavier than any other circumstance. Meaning, if someone is charged with battery, this crime is considered a first-degree misdemeanor.

However, if the same person committed the same crime in the setting of a protest or riot, they would be charged with a felony of the third degree. The only difference between these two crimes is the setting, and potentially but not universally, the person’s motive. One potential issue with this is that riots are not actually defined within the entire legislation until page 16. This definition provided a lack of description, details and is up for much interpretation. This is something that shouldn’t be the backbone of legislation that is currently setting a precedent for the adoption of laws restricting protests and riots across the country.

Another, more ideological, issue is the question of if the motive of the crime should affect the severity and sentencing. This has become a hot-button topic in law studies in recent years, with the rise of hate-crime punishments. However, I think that imposing a heavier punishment on protestors who commit the same crimes as another individual in a separate circumstance puts more of a risk on protesting itself. This is a right guaranteed to us by the first amendment and a right that has been exercised to put forth some of the most pivotal social changes in American history. It’s also difficult to prove without a doubt that an individual committed the crime with the motive of rioting and should, thereby, receive the more severe charge and sentencing.

The legislation’s definition of a riot becomes somewhat more evident towards the middle of the text, where it is described as unlawful for “a person, assembled with two or more other persons and acting with a common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will.”

Committing the actions described here would then result in a first-degree misdemeanor. It only takes two people for a peaceful protest or gathering to become a riot? To define a riot in these terms is, quite honestly, preposterous. Nearly any social gathering with two individuals getting into an argument is considered a riot in these terms and that’s exactly how this law will be imposed. It will be imposed, not for the righteous goals of protecting the public from violence, but for protecting the public from differences in opinions and views. Nearly every single historical protest, from the Stonewall riots to the March on Washington and certainly the Boston Tea Party that acted as a catalyst for the origination of our country, would be punishable under this law. There’s a clear distinction between the motivations of protecting and silencing, and this law is certainly doing the latter.

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