Florida legislation seeks to protect elected leaders from protests at their homes
It comes amid rising cases of harassment among elected leaders, including one in which a group used foul language and coughed in the face of a Broward County school board member.
Protesters who take their demonstrations to people’s homes could face jail time and fines. A proposed Florida Senate bill addresses unlawful assemblies that target residences.
The legislation, SB 1664, comes amid rising cases of harassment among elected leaders.
"During the height of COVID-19, Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins had anti-mask protesters swarm her home," Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The protesters used foul language, argued with her neighbors, and even coughed in her face. Apart from this, she dealt with almost nine months of similar harassment outside of her home because of LGBTQ-affirming school board policies. These events left Jennifer's five-year-old daughter traumatized," Perry said. "This is one example of many. We have a video we won't show at this meeting of all the protests that are happening in certain people's homes.”
Perry’s bill expands state law, which says assemblies that violate the peace can be declared unlawful in public spaces like a sidewalk. Perry says current laws against disorderly conduct or trespassing don’t go far enough. So, under his bill, violators would be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in the county jail and a $500 fine.
"This bill recognizes the right of privacy, safety and peace that we all deserve in our homes," Perry said. "The bill creates a new criminal offense to picket or protest outside of a person's home with the intent to harass or disturb.”
Perry says even silent protesters could be considered a nuisance. Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, wondered how law enforcement would decide who gets accused of harassment.
“If someone is just standing on a sidewalk, maybe with a sign or not a sign outside someone's home, or standing in the street outside someone's home, how would a police officer determine whether it reaches the level of harassment?" Polsky asked. "What if they're saying absolutely nothing? They're just holding a sign and perhaps the sign is not vulgar, just something political. What's the line that someone's crossing?”
During public testimony in support of the bill, Lt. Mike Crabb with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said the bill targets organized protesters -- for example, demonstrators in their cars.
“They got a group of people together to stop four or five vehicles in front of the house and just lay on the horn. That would be a targeted position," Crabb said. "If they're just driving by and they're honking and they yell out the window, then that wouldn't necessarily meet the intent of the statute.”
Speaking against the bill, Rev. Russell Meyer from Jacksonville said cities often have mixed use areas, where protesters may be in front of a business that’s located next to someone’s home.
“So what I see in this bill is an opportunity for unequal justice being applied by local law enforcement if they happen not to like the subject matter," Meyer said.
“Yes, we signed up for the job. Our families didn't, our neighbors didn't," said Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, a sponsor of the bill. "There ought to be a place where we can go and enjoy and relax and kind of retreat from the hectic day-to-day life that we serve, and our neighborhoods and our homes are those places.”
“In my legislative career, I've had to call the police and have them go to my home while I was here so that my family could feel safe," said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "So I understand the intent, I understand the import of this bill, but I worry about its application. I worry that we need more clarity in terms of when silence is considered criminal.”
“When you actually attack someone's home and family, is there nothing sacred?" asked Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. "I don't care what your position is. We need to get back to a position that says we're over the line if we're attacking individuals and their families and trying to terrorize and intimidate them.”
The bill received unanimous support from the committee, with Democrats saying they hope clarifying language will be added. The bill’s next stop is Tuesday in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
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