Controversial ‘anti-riot’ bill set for spotlight as Florida legislative session begins

Demonstrators gather outside Jacksonville City Hall. (Riley Storey/WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When the Florida Legislative session begins next week there’s one controversial bill that is expected to gain statewide and possibly nationwide attention — House Bill 1.

The bill — dubbed the “anti-riot bill” or the “anti-protest” bill depending on who you ask — aims to enhance penalties for crimes committed during a riot or violent protest, not allow people arrested during such a demonstration to be released from jail before a first court appearance and create new felonies for organizing or participating in a violent demonstration.

The bill, a response to the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd last year, has gained strong Republican support, including the support of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The bill has faced opposition from Democrats, including those in Duval County who say it would limit First Amendment rights and allow bystanders to shoot and kill looters.

Jacksonville Pastor John Allen Newman told host Kent Justice “On This Week in Jacksonville” he believes the bill could disproportionately impact people of color.

“Certainly, people of color have disproportionately been on the wrong end of the stick when it comes to police actions in the community,” said Newman, a Democrat. “The potential for this to be rife with even more mistreatment is obvious to those of us who are concerned about people having their rights protected.”

Newman also echoed the concerns of Democrats who have said the bill is unnecessary.

“Here’s the question for me: Is there not existing law already codified in statutes that do the thing they’re talking about enhancing? There are already laws if you accost a police are arrested for assaulting a police officer,” he said. “I think it’s really important to understand that in this particular bill’s broader context that you’re focusing on protecting police, but where is the commencement focus on enhancing when police do things to protesters, that are wrong?”

Newman pointed to the fact that charges were dropped for many protesters arrested in Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit brought against four protesters.

Last week on This Week In Jacksonville, local Republican Rep. Paul Renner, said he supports any legislation that would deter political violence.

“We have to draw a bright line and I think everybody agrees that the freedom of speech is absolute, and has to be protected in any kind of legislation, but it also is a true statement that we cannot have political violence,” said Renner, the Florida House speaker-designate for 2022-24. “It simply says, if you want to advocate, you have to advocate in a non-violent way.”

You can hear more from Newman and others on the controversial bill on This Week in Jacksonville, Sunday at 9 a.m. on Channel 4 and at noon on CW17.

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