DeSantis (R) made passage of the measure his top priority in the 2021 legislative session. He and the Republican-controlled legislature sought the law in response to the massive civil rights protests that took place nationwide in 2020 following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
While acknowledging that most of the protests in Florida were tame, DeSantis said in April that he was glad to sign “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”
Several groups quickly sued, including Dream Defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union. The groups said they feared holding any kinds of protests because they didn’t know how the law would be enforced.
Walker agreed, and said “their speech continues to be chilled” because the law is vague.
He said the legislation changed the “common law definition of riot” that the state has used for decades into something that is unclear.
“Tossing Molotov cocktails at the police station with 10 of your best friends is clearly rioting,” Walker wrote, but the new law isn’t that specific.
The law prohibits “willfully participating in a violent public disturbance,” but Walker ruled that the state doesn’t clearly define what that is.
“Is it enough to stand passively near violence?” he wrote. “What if you continue protesting when violence erupts? What if that protest merely involves standing with a sign while others fight around you? Does it depend on whether your sign expresses a message that is pro- or anti-law enforcement? What about filming the violence? What if you are in the process of leaving the disturbance and give a rioter a bottle of water to wash tear gas from their eyes?”
DeSantis said the state will appeal. When asked about Walker’s decision at a news conference on Thursday, he said he’s confident that the state will prevail. Walker has ruled against the DeSantis administration in other cases, including last year when the state narrowed the rights of felons to vote. Walker’s ruling was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
“That’s a foreordained conclusion from that court,” DeSantis said about Walker’s decision on the riot bill. “I guarantee you, we’ll win that on appeal.”
DeSantis’s administration is also appealing a decision from a different judge this week that prohibits the state from punishing school districts if they enact mask mandates to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
Walker’s decision on the riot bill was welcomed by the groups that sued the state.
The ACLU called it “a major victory for civil rights and racial justice advocates.”