JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Supreme Court was asked to interpret a Florida law aimed at combating rioting on Wednesday.
The hearing centered around whether the law could potentially be read in a way that would allow peaceful protestors to be arrested and held without bail.
The ‘anti-riot’ law, or the ‘anti-protest’ law as opponents dubbed it, was passed in 2021 following the 2020 protests and riots that broke out in Jacksonville and around the country after the murder of George Floyd and the January 6th Capitol Riot.
A lawsuit brought by the group Dream Defenders, which according to its website, fights “for a world without prisons, policing, surveillance and punishment” challenged the law in federal court.
James Tysse, an attorney representing Dream Defenders, claimed the law chills free speech due to vague language that could put peaceful protestors at risk of arrest.
“It’s about whether or not individuals were willing to go out and risk being arrested without possibility of bail for exercising their First Amendment rights, and in that context, I think vagueness and confusion has particular salience,” Tysse said during the Wednesday hearing.
After the law was initially blocked by a federal court the Florida Supreme Court was asked to help interpret the statute, as a federal appellate court considers whether to allow the law to go into effect.
Attorneys representing the Governor and Jacksonville Sheriff contended there is no ambiguity.
“The statute does not prohibit peaceful protest or innocent bystanding,” attorney Sonya Harrell, who is representing the Jacksonville Sheriff in the case, said.
“To the extent there’s an ambiguity, if that behavior is including peaceful protest it is certainly not prohibited,” attorney Nicholas Meros, who is representing the DeSantis Administration, argued.
Justices peppered Tysse with questions, casting doubt on the idea the law would put peaceful protesters at risk.
“Why are you so wedded to this idea that the legislature did something wrong, that we basically have to save the legislature from itself?” Florida Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz asked.
“Help me understand why I should twist myself into a pretzel to find a legislative decision to criminalize protected conduct,” Justice John Couriel requested.
Despite those questions, after the hearing Tysse expressed confidence the court would interpret the law in a way that protected Floridians’ right to peacefully protest.
“The questions we got suggest that the court will adopt a construction that will protect constitutional rights,” Tysse said.
It’s not clear when the Florida Supreme Court may finalize a ruling in this case, though it usually takes months.
Once it does offer its opinion, the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will decide on the constitutionality of the law.
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