In a hearing before the Florida Supreme Court, attorneys representing Governor Ron DeSantis and the Jacksonville sheriff defended a controversial 2021 law aimed at curbing violent protests, asserting that innocent bystanders and peaceful demonstrators were not at risk of being targeted by the legislation.
The law, championed by DeSantis in response to nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020, has been challenged in a federal lawsuit by civil rights groups like the Dream Defenders and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, who argue that it infringes upon First Amendment rights.
"Riot" is currently defined in the law as a willful participation in a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more people with the intent to engage in violent and disorderly conduct, resulting in harm to others or property damage. Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker had issued a preliminary injunction against the law, deeming it "vague and overbroad."
The case reached the Florida Supreme Court after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sought clarification on the definition of a "riot" in the law. During the hearing, justices questioned sentence construction and grammar but expressed skepticism about Judge Walker's interpretation. The plaintiffs urged the court to define a "riot" in a way that safeguards the rights of peaceful protesters.
The outcomes of this legal battle will have implications for the balance between public safety and the protection of free speech rights during protests in Florida. The Florida Supreme Court is expected to take several months before issuing a decision.