Tallahassee — The Florida Senate on Thursday approved an “anti-riot” bill championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, sending it to him for signature into law over the objections of Democrats and civil rights groups who say the measure infringes on the fundamental First Amendment right to protest.
The hotly debated measure passed 23-17, largely along partisan lines.
The parts of the bill (HB 1 ) that most upset Democrats grant civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road; prevent people arrested for rioting or offenses committed during a riot from bailing out of jail until their first court appearance; and impose a six-month mandatory sentence for battery on a police officer during a riot.
DeSantis, when he unveiled the proposal, emphasized the need to prevent bail for rioters, so they aren’t able to rejoin the unrest.
During an emotional debate, Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, called the bill a “mail piece for reelection for a specific base who wants it. … We have to [instead] pass legislation for all Floridians.”
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, who read the First Amendment on the Senate floor, added, “We know the governor wants this piece of legislation. We don’t have to do everything the governor wants.”
But Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the bill wasn’t about politics, race or peaceful protests. Instead, it was meant to prevent riots that hurt or kill people and destroy property, she said.
“This bill is about preventing violence,” said Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, sponsor of the Senate version of the measure.
Burgess and his fellow Republicans fended off 16 amendments from Democrats in a Wednesday session as they attempted to water down the bill.
Burgess was questioned by Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, about whether James Fields, a white supremacist who killed Heather Heyer during protests at Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, would have been granted civil immunity for her death under the bill.
Burgess noted the bill wouldn’t prevent criminal charges and the provision would only apply to people defending themselves from protesters, not those deliberately targeting them. Fields was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2019.
“That person rammed a vehicle into those people to hurt them … he wasn’t defending himself,” Burgess said. “That is in no way protected in this bill.”
The bill passed the House 76-39 with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed on March 26. It will become effective immediately when DeSantis signs it, which he said Thursday he would do.