Common Cause Opposes Florida’s Anti-protest Bill

Tomorrow, the Florida Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to hear House Bill 1, which would create new criminal penalties for protesting; shield those who kill or injure people engaged in protesting; allow the Governor and his cabinet to alter municipal budgets; and open municipalities up to lawsuits for unlimited damages after protests. The bill was first proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last fall, during Black Lives Matter protests about police brutality and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the many lives lost before them. 

The House passed the bill on March 26, 2021. 

Statement of Keshia Morris Desir, Mass Incarceration Project Manager for Common Cause

Common Cause opposes the anti-protest bill now being considered by the Florida Senate.

Students of history know that our country would not have been formed without protests. Colonists protested the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, and Townsend Act taxes. The most famous protest – the Boston Tea Party — led eventually to the First Continental Congress. 

Protest was such an important part of our country’s early history that our Constitution enshrines the right in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech… or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Students of history also know that our country would not have moved forward without protests. Women’s suffrage. Ending child labor. The 40-hour work week. Voting rights for people of color. Environmental protection laws. Workplace safety laws. All of these changes – and others – came only after people assembled and petitioned our government for the redress of grievances.

Now some Florida legislators want to ignore that history and violate Floridians’ right to protest.

The bill being heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee tomorrow would effectively criminalize protests like those that have shaped America’s history.  

It would allow people to be punished for the actions of others – allowing peaceful protesters to be arrested and convicted of “rioting” they did not do.

It duplicates existing protections against violence property damage – while creating harsh criminal penalties that will almost certainly be imposed disproportionately on people of color.

It encourages violence against people engaged in peaceful protests – by inventing a new liability shield for those who kill or injure protesters.

It takes away cities’ authority to set their own budgets – giving the Governor and his cabinet the ability to reject and amend local budgets.

It opens huge liability risks for municipalities – by waiving sovereign immunity and allowing civil lawsuits against municipalities for any amount of damages, based on an after-the-fact determination of whether law enforcement’s response to an assembly was ‘reasonable.’

The bill was a political response to the Black Lives Matter movement and has grave consequences for all of our freedom of speech rights. 

It’s odd that a bill threatening Floridians’ free speech and assembly rights should be assigned to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But as long as the bill is in front of the Committee, the Committee should consider:

  1.       How much this bill will cost the state of Florida. One analysis calculated that increased incarceration, attributable to the bill, will cost taxpayers $6.6 – $17.5 million per year. Other costs will include: decreased sales and property tax revenues resulting from the impact of incarceration on individuals’ ability to earn a living; and increased need for public assistance. We urge the Senate Appropriations Committee to fully quantify these costs before taking any action on this bill.  
  2.       How much this bill could cost municipalities. The bill will encourage civil lawsuits seeking unlimited damages. Municipalities’ insurance costs will be affected – and local property taxpayers will bear the brunt of increased costs. We urge the Senate Appropriations Committee to fully quantify these costs before taking any action on this bill.
  3.       The likely national reaction to this bill, and what that could cost Florida. Georgia’s tourism industry just lost an estimated $100 million in revenue when the MLB moved its All Star Game out of state. The boycott of South Carolina cost the state millions in tourism dollars before the confederate flag was removed from state capitol grounds in 2015. Passing this law to criminalize peaceful protest could easily trigger a boycott against Florida. We urge the Senate Appropriations Committee to quantify and take those potential costs into consideration before taking any action on this bill.

We also urge the Senate to avoid rushing this bill through the legislative process. Hasty decisions do not make good public policy. 

Florida’s senators are supposed to represent their constituents – this bill would harm those constituents’ interests. It would increase incarceration costs and property taxes. And it would violate the right of every American, guaranteed under the Constitution, to peacefully assemble and petition our government for the redress of grievances.