Across Florida, there’s mixed reaction to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new set of proposals aimed at cracking down on disorderly protests. Many of his fellow Republicans are vowing to back the measure. But some Democrats, along with the ACLU, say the proposals are unconstitutional and are nothing more than political theater.
The governor wants protesters in Florida who throw things, cause property damage or block traffic to be charged with felonies. He’s also calling for protest organizers to be charged with racketeering if a demonstration turns violent.
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State Sen. Keith Perry, Kara Gross of the ACLU, and Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren discussed the issue on The Florida Roundup.
Here’s an excerpt of the conversation.
TOM HUDSON: Do you support the governor's ideas as proposed this week?
KEITH PERRY: From what I've read and I haven't looked at all the details, but absolutely, I think that everybody should and understand, you know, what's at stake with what's going on now.
HUDSON: What do you mean by that? What is at stake in your estimation?
PERRY: Our country was founded on a republic democracy, which means that you have a right to change laws through elections. You have the right to pressure people. You have the right to do that. And when I say pressure, you have a right to pressure by having your voice heard. But when you use intimidation and I mean, I think that is certainly the goal of some people, not certainly not all the protesters. But there are certain protesters out there that are using intimidation and not only intimidation, but every single citizen has the right to enjoy their freedom and their time.
And so, you know, when you see these protesters blocking traffic and people can't get to work, they can't get home to their families. You now you're now you're stepping over the line. That's not a peaceful protest. Now you're infringing upon the rights of other people.
MELISSA ROSS: How, in your view, does the governor's move violate the Constitution?
KARA GROSS: There is so much wrong with this proposal that it's hard to even know where to begin. First and foremost, this anti-protest proposal is an attack on our constitutional right to free speech and the right to peaceful assembly. It is a blatant attempt to silence, criminalize and punish Floridians who are seeking to end racial injustice and systemic racism.
Protesting is a fundamental right, and the right to protest and express dissent is one of America's foundational principles. It's what makes us a democratic nation and not an authoritarian regime. The governor's proposal is intended to swiftly and forcefully crack down on the right to protest. And make no mistake about it. This is designed to instill fear in would-be protesters and to silence dissent. It's un-American. It's undemocratic.
ROSS: How will the ACLU oppose this? Your organization has already announced that you will challenge the governor and seek to have this struck down swiftly. What is your counter move here?
GROSS: We will be working with partners and the people of Florida to do everything we can to let the governor know that we can't be silenced and that he can't enact laws that are unconstitutional and intended to strip away our First Amendment rights. Contrary to the misleading and disingenuous title of this proposal, this proposal would lead to criminalization and arrest of peaceful protesters. A more apt title would be the Silencing Dissent Act.
HUDSON: What impact would this proposal have on the prosecution of protesters who commit violence, property violence, or assault?
ANDREW WARREN: Well, it depends on the prosecutor. Simply expanding and increasing penalties for crimes doesn't necessarily change the way that prosecutors prosecute. If you have prosecutors who act as rubber stamps, who simply seek the maximum punishment on every single charge they file, then it's going to have an impact.
But good prosecutors aren't simply rubber stamps. They actually think through whether they're going to file charges even after an arrest has been made. They think about what the best outcome is for the public in terms of public safety and reducing recidivism and supporting victims. So the extent to which this has [an impact] on prosecutors — if this package of proposals becomes law — really does depend on how good the prosecutor is.
HUDSON: Turns out we've got a prosecutor on the phone right now, Andrew. How would you determine whether or not to pursue charges under this proposal?
WARREN: Let's take a step back for a minute. I mean, if the goal of the proposal is to hold people accountable who commit crimes while protecting people's First Amendment rights, then that's a goal that I share. But a lot of these proposals simply increase the maximum punishment, which is a pretty lazy and ineffective way to address criminal behavior.
And we've got to keep in mind, overall, this looks like political theater. The proposals came from the governor. But make no mistake, this is a Trump proposal designed to divide us, distract us from racial injustice, and punish those who disagree with him. And it's important that Floridians ignore the dog whistle here. And don't get fooled. I mean, here in Hillsborough County, we're doing the really hard work of protecting First Amendment rights and keeping the community safe. We filed 260 charges against more than 120 people who have been rioting, looting, exploiting this moment for personal gain and threatening public safety while still upholding people's First Amendment rights.