Federal judge blocks Florida's 'anti-riot' law that Gov. DeSantis championed as a way to combat protests but civil rights groups said targeted people of color

Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • A federal judge on Thursday blocked Florida's controversial "anti-riot" law.

  • Championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the law criminalizes protests that turn violent.

  • Civil rights groups sued over it, saying it infringed on First Amendment rights and targeted Black people.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

A federal judge on Thursday blocked Florida's "anti-riot" law, which Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed as a way to curb violent demonstrations in the state.

Northern Florida District Judge Mark Walker said the order binds Florida's agents, employees, and attorneys, court documents show, and blocked enforcement of the law under the definition of the word "riot."

The state defines a "riot" in the law as three or more people participating in a violent public disturbance that causes property damage or injury to someone, according to court documents. The Dream Defenders, a coalition that advocates for the abolition of police and jails, sued the state arguing that its new definition of a "riot" was too vague.

The Freedom Defenders said in the lawsuit that the law was too vague because it did not clarify whether people taking part in a peaceful protest that turned violent could face charges, and Walker agreed. Walker said in the ruling that the state's definition of a riot could lead to innocent people being prosecuted.

"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," Walker wrote.

Walker said the state can't make a new definition of the word "riot," but that it could still suppress them.

Signed by DeSantis in April, the law criminalizes protests that turn violent. It said protests can be called "mob intimidation," a first-degree misdemeanor that can land someone up to one year in prison. Protests could also be called a "riot," which the law made a second-degree felony that carries up to 15 years in prison, ABC News reported.

The controversial law led to a handful of lawsuits from civil rights groups arguing that it infringed on First Amendment rights and targeted Black people. Walker noted in his ruling that the plaintiffs suggested the law was put into place as a response to racial justice protests that occurred in the summer of 2020, but he feared it would have more far-reaching effects.

"Though plaintiffs claim that they and their members fear that it will be used against them based on the color of their skin or the messages that they express, its vagueness permits those in power to weaponize its enforcement against any group who wishes to express any message that the government disapproves of," Walker wrote.

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