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A Critic Talks About Where Florida's 'Anti-Riot' Law Came From And The Impact It's Having On Protesting

A person with a ponytail holds a black and white sign that says protesting is not a crime. Party for socialism and liberation.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Protesters gathered earlier this month in Tampa to support Jamie Bullock, who was arrested last year before the anti-riot bill was signed into law. Her supporters are concerned more protesters will be arrested under the new law, even if they're peacefully protesting.

Judith Scully, a Stetson University law professor, racial justice advocate, and a critic of the law, tells WUSF's Daylina Miller how the law came about and the effect it's already having.

One of the most controversial issues in the Florida legislature last year was what got dubbed the "anti-riot bill."

Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed it in response to last summer's protests for racial justice across the state and nation.

It raises penalties for violence, burglary, looting and property damage during protests. It also creates a defense for people who injure or kill violent protesters.

Opponents of the law have sued, saying it suppresses free speech. A judge earlier this month agreed.

Judith Scully is a Stetson University law professor, racial justice advocate, and a critic of the law.

Scully recently spoke with WUSF's Daylina Miller about how the law came about and the effect the law is already having as the issue winds its way through the courts.

Scully: We saw thousands of people taking to the streets. And we also saw a lot of conservative lawmakers feeling threatened by that. And their response was to propose legislation that would limit the ability of individuals to actually exercise their first amendment rights to protest.

Miller: Do you think that people have not participated in rallies or have not spoken out that might have otherwise?

Scully: Well, we know that for a fact. I mean, there is a lawsuit that is currently filed in the federal courthouse, challenging the anti-protest bill in Florida, where several organizations that have traditionally engaged in all kinds of forms of protest and sit ins and rallies have indicated as the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, that they are no longer seeing the large numbers of individuals who want showed up to protest once the anti -protest bill in Florida passed.

Their numbers dwindled, and their membership actually expressed concern related to their future. And so yes, we know that there's a chilling effect, I can be protesting absolutely peacefully, and my life lines up where I'm arrested, and then I have this charge I have to fight against.

And then if I'm found guilty, I am no longer eligible to vote, I'm no longer eligible to apply for financial assistance for education, I'm no longer eligible for a wide variety of opportunities that would allow me to excel in life. And that's a very serious concern.

Miller: Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that Florida's new laws unconstitutional and can't be enforced. He said the bill was an assault on first amendment rights to free speech and assembly, and Gov. Ron DeSantis can appeal the ruling. So where do we currently stand on that?

Scully The court is saying the definition of Riot is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, it is impacting people's rights to express themselves through protests. And it is also impossible for citizens to understand what it is that the prohibited conduct actually consists of.

So this is a big win for organizations who are engaged in protesting and dissent. And it was a loss clearly for Gov. DeSantis' bill. There's no doubt about it. But yes, he has the right to appeal it. So we'll see what happens next. I have no predictions in terms of what will happen on appeal. We'll have to wait and see.

The judge in the federal district court case made it very clear that there was a good likelihood that the plaintiffs in this case, the protesters and the organizations that engage in protests, are likely to succeed in their claims.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.
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