Panel backs protest bill after fierce debate

House Speaker Chris Sprowls said HB 1 will not protect violence because violence is not speech.
Photo special to the Outlook

By Dara Kam

News Service of Florida

An effort to enhance penalties associated with violent protests, create new crimes when mobs attack property or police and make it difficult for cities to trim law-enforcement spending had a rocky legislative debut last Wednesday, drawing heated criticism from opponents.

The measure is backed by the state’s three most-powerful Republican leaders but was decried as unnecessary and divisive by Democrats and other critics — many of them young or Black — who unsuccessfully urged the House Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee to reject the proposal.

“I was recently asked, how can we make this bill better. You can shred it,” state Rep. Mike Grieco, a Miami Beach Democrat who is a former prosecutor, said before the Republican-controlled panel voted along party lines in favor of the measure.

But House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, issued a statement after the vote pointing to the “passionate, vocal speech and debate” about the bill (HB 1).

“It was a demonstration of how people can use the God-given right to freedom of speech and protest without being violent, without inciting riot and without destruction to property — the exact protection of actions opponents argue it would destroy,” said Sprowls, also a former prosecutor. “HB 1 will increase penalties on those who would engage in a form of domestic terrorism, violent mobs that would destroy and damage property and injure and kill people. HB 1 will protect the freedoms of speech and protest we hold dear as Americans. It will not protect violence, because violence is not speech.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis rolled out a version of the legislation last year after months of nationwide protests that called attention to racial inequities in policing and other aspects of American life. 

Showing solidarity with the governor, Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, released their version of the proposal on Jan. 6 — the same day a frenzied mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in a failed attempt to prevent the certification of the November election and thwart President Joe Biden from succeeding former President Donald Trump.

The Florida Republican leaders have pointed to the attack in Washington, D.C., to bolster the justification for a crackdown on violent protests.

But opponents of the measure say it is unnecessary and will make Black people even more vulnerable to the whims of law enforcement officers.

The bill “would disproportionately hurt communities of color trying to exercise their constitutional rights,” Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said, adding that her office has received more than 4,000 calls and emails opposing the measure. “This will do nothing to make us safer. It will only fill up our jails and prisons, keeping people away from their jobs, families and the Legislature.”

A staff analysis by the House — where the measure is on the fast-track — acknowledged that Florida largely escaped violent protests last summer that resulted in the burning of government buildings, destruction of businesses and looting.

“Over the past year, protests relating to race, police tactics, and politics have swept across the country. While many protests in Florida remained peaceful, some cities were forced to issue emergency curfews as police officers were injured and local businesses were damaged and burglarized,” the analysis by the staff of the Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee said.

The importance of the House measure is reflected by its demarcation as HB 1 and by House leaders’ assurances that it will be among the first measures the chamber approves after the 2021 legislative session convenes on March 2.

At least 69 people signed up to speak about the bill on Wednesday, nearly all of them in opposition. Subcommittee Chairman Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, gave members of the public one minute each to address the panel during what was slated to be a two-hour meeting but ran 30 minutes long.

Byrd, who turned off the microphone to keep speakers from exceeding their allotted 60 seconds, defended the measure shortly before the committee’s 11-6 vote in favor of it.

Many speakers referred to the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who died in May after being pinned to the ground beneath the knee of a White police officer for nearly nine minutes.  Floyd’s death sparked a flurry of protests throughout the nation, including some that turned violent.

But Byrd said no one at last Wednesday’s meeting took note of David Dorn, a retired St. Louis police officer who died “as he was trying to protect his friend’s business.”

“People’s lives were ruined, their businesses destroyed, their lives taken,” said Byrd, a lawyer. “The purpose of this bill is to prevent lawlessness, not protected free speech.”

The legislation would create a new offense of “mob intimidation” when three or more people act “with a common intent, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person by force, or threat of force, to do any act or to assume or abandon a particular viewpoint.”

The House bill and an identical Senate bill (SB 484) would also enhance penalties for defacing public monuments, make it a crime to destroy memorials and require mandatory restitution for the full cost of repair or replacement of damaged or destroyed memorials.

In addition, the proposal would make a crime of “doxing,” the posting of private information about people on social media sites, when such data is published with the intent to “threaten, intimidate, harass, incite violence … or place a person in reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm.” Also, the proposal would make it more difficult for local government officials to trim spending on law enforcement. 

But opponents of the measure said it would have quashed protests that led to the country’s foundation and secured rights for many of its citizens.

“As it stands, under this bill, the Boston Tea Party would have been illegal. Suffragettes would not have gotten us the 19th Amendment. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been able to march in Selma, bringing us the civil rights movement,” said Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon.

Learned, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said the bill goes too far “in reining in freedom of speech and expression.”

But Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, the bill’s House sponsor, urged his colleagues to support the measure.

“I understand that there are some difficulties in this bill but this is the first crack that we got at it and this is the first committee stop,” said Fernandez-Barquin, R-Miami. “I ask you for your vote to condemn violence and to protect the First Amendment.”

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