Judge blocks enforcement of Florida's 'anti-riot' law

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) -A federal judge on Thursday blocked enforcement of an anti-riot law spearheaded by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in response to nationwide protests last year over racial injustice, saying the legislation likely violated the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, ruling in a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups, did not rule the entire statute was unconstitutional but found that the Florida legislature's new definition of the word "riot" was too vague and confusing to satisfy free-speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

"If this court does not enjoin the statute's enforcement, the lawless actions of a few rogue individuals could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians," he wrote.

In the 90-page ruling, Walker, who was appointed in 2012 by then-President Barack Obama, included a three-page history of the civil rights movement in Florida dating back to 1956.

"We vehemently disagree with today's decision, but this case was always going to be decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals," DeSantis said in a written statement. "There is a difference between a peaceful protest and a riot, and Floridians do not want to see the mayhem and violence associated with riots in their communities."

The law, prompted by last year's summer of sometimes violent nationwide protests over police brutality and racism, created criminal offenses tied to rioting and increased penalties for people taking part.

"We are glad the court has agreed to suspend enforcement of this key provision while we continue to advocate to ensure that protesters in Florida can safely exercise their right to speak out against injustice," the ACLU of Florida said.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Cooney and Sandra Maler)

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