By Patricia Brigham (LWV) & Former Justice Justice Peggy A. Quince (LWV) – Floridians, your First Amendment right to peacefully protest is under attack. Not by extremist groups, but by our very own Florida Legislature. The vehicle is a bill known as HB 1 and its Senate companion, SB 484.
Governor Ron DeSantis announced plans for this bill following the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, which took place throughout the United States and around the world after the brutal murder of George Floyd. Now the legislation has cynically been rebranded as an attempt to address the insurrection that took place at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in fact, it was filed that very night.
HB 1 at its core would dilute the rights that this country and this state were founded upon. This legislation includes enhanced criminal penalties for offenses already codified by law. Innocent bystanders caught in a protest gone unruly could find themselves arrested and thrown in jail for the night, their bail eliminated before a first court appearance after their arrest. The state could preempt local government authority when law enforcement budgets are cut, allowing the Governor and Cabinet to force local governments to cut other needed local services.
This proposed legislation is completely unnecessary. There are already criminal laws – both state and federal – that address rioting, insurrection, treason, assault, and battery.. In fact, it would chill the exercise of the right to peaceably assemble, made abundantly clear when there is no provision that takes into account the granting of permits authorizing peaceful gatherings. Even more alarming is the granting of an affirmative defense to persons who may deliberately injure innocent protesters that peacefully protest when a gathering is designated a “riot” under the vague standards of the legislation.
Since the founding of these United States and the establishment of the State of Florida, We, the People, have enjoyed the right to peaceably assemble and the coordinated right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Article I, section 5 of the Florida Constitution provides: “The people shall have the right to assemble, to instruct their representatives, and to petition for redress of grievances.” This right derives from Amendment I, of the United States Constitution.
The First Amendment specifically provides that Congress cannot make a law that abridges the right of the people to peacefully assemble. Likewise, no state legislature can deprive the people of this basic and fundamental right. This was made clear by the United States Supreme Court in De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353 (1937). Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Charles Hughes said the state laws that interfere with a group’s right to gather and discuss political issues was “repugnant to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” HB 1, like the bill denounced in the De Jonge case, would abridge the right of the citizens of the State of Florida to the free exercise of their right to assemble and petition their government.
HB 1, or as its sponsors have named it, “Combatting Public Disorder” is not just anti-protest and anti-1st Amendment, it is outright anti-American.
We the People have seen the power of the right to assemble from the days of William Penn to the modern civil rights movements. Abolitionists took to the streets to raise the nation’s awareness of the evils of slavery. Suffragists used the power of protest to redress the grievance of voter disenfranchisement for a large segment of the population – women. Labor activists, religious organizations, LGBTQ communities, and other groups throughout our nation have gathered, with their collective voices, to call for redress of problems that plague our democracy. As a result, Americans of all racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds have peaceably protested and made positive changes. This is the essence of democracy. This is the essence of a government as described by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, “[a] government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
The Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Rights in the Florida Constitution form the foundations for this democracy. Each right is a pillar that keeps the house, our democracy, steady. When we tear down one pillar of the house, the foundation begins to shift. The house is then subject to collapse. We must not allow this house, our precious democracy, to fall.
We urge our legislators, both representatives and senators, to reject HB 1 and its Senate companion. By doing so, we preserve the right to peaceably assemble and we preserve a necessary pillar of our democracy.
Patricia Brigham and is president of the League of Women Voters of Florida / Justice Peggy A. Quince served on the Florida Supreme Court from 1999-2019 and is a current board director of the League of Women Voters of Florida