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Anti-Riot Or Anti-Speech? HB1 Becomes Law In Florida; Earth Day And Florida's Environment

DeSantis HB 1
Miami Herald/The Florida Channel
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signs a law that immediately enhances criminal penalties for crimes committed during protests that turn violent.

One of Gov. Ron DeSantis' highest priorities is now law. And it already faces a challenge in federal court. Supporters call it anti-rioting legislation. Opponents call it an unconstitutional restriction on protests and free speech.

Last September, Gov. Ron DeSantis laid out the framework for a bill that would crackdown on what he called “violent protests.” DeSantis claimed the wave of demonstrations across the country after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police, made such a bill a necessity.

The measure became a priority for the Republican-led Legislature. And on Monday, the DeSantis signed HB-1 into law:

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“We put out a vision for the state to maintain being a law and order state. We saw really unprecedented disorder and rioting throughout the summer or 2020, and we said that’s not going to happen in the State of Florida,” DeSantis said at Wednesday's signing ceremony.

The bill raises the penalties for violence, burglary, looting and property damage during protests, among other things.

"I think there's value in increasing the penalties for these crimes," said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County. "We're sending a strong message to those who believe that 'mostly peaceful protests' are OK, that they're not."

Under the law, someone is committing a riot if "he or she willfully participates in a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more people." Supporters say the new law gives added protection to innocent people who might get caught in the crosshairs of violent protests.

"I think willfully participating means you're part of the process," said Fine. "If we wanted to include bystanders, it would say that. You have to be a willful participant in the violent activity, not simply (someone who) happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"There's a stark difference between enhancing criminal penalties on things that are already existing criminal conduct versus actually criminalizing conduct," said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami-Dade County. "Actually criminalizing conduct in a completely objectively vague fashion is very dangerous."

Critics worry, and a lawsuit argues, the law will have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights. Aaron Carter Bates filed a lawsuit against HB-1 on Thursday in Orlando federal court. He said last week a colleague asked him to review the law in advance of a planned protest regarding an expected verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted Tuesday of murdering George Floyd.

"I let her know very clearly that if they go out there on Saturday, they're subjecting themselves to felony," Bates said he told his colleague.

Fine disagrees. He does not think the law discourages assembly and speech. "I think this protects people who want to engage in peaceful protest because it says if outside agitators try to take over those protests and make them violent, those people are going to go to jail."

"This does not improve the lives of any Floridians at all, especially coming out at the tail end of a pandemic where there was a host of issues that people were suffering from. This is not one of them," Pizzo said.

Florida Climate Resilience

Thursday marked the 51st anniversary of Earth Day. President Joe Biden used the occasion, and a White House climate summit to pledged to slash U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases by 50 percent by the year 2030. It’s an ambitious target that will require retooling the world's largest economy in an effort to put the U.S. at the forefront of the international campaign to slow climate change.

In Florida, state leaders are starting to take climate change more seriously. A new statewide resiliency program approved by both the Florida House and Senate will help coastal and inland communities alike harden their defenses against rising seas and other impacts. The response to a cause of climate change has been uneven.

Jacksonville is "pretty far beyond other major cities in Florida," said WJCT Environmental Reporter Brendan Rivers. "We don't have an emissions reduction plan in place at this point. The city hasn't really done much to prepare for the impacts of climate change."

Orlando was one of the first Florida cities to commit to greenhouse gas reductions. The city's pledge is to use only renewable energy sources to power municipal operations by 2030, and have the entire city using only renewable sources by 2050. However, a bill making its way through the state Legislature would stop local governments from setting limits on powering homes in their areas.

"This is a bill that basically would undermine local efforts like here in Orlando to set clean energy goals," said WMFE Environmental Reporter Amy Green.

Tampa has pledged for city operations to use sustainable energy by 2045. St. Petersburg wants to get to 100 percent renewable energy a decade earlier — by 2035. "The mayors of the four biggest cities in the state — Miami, Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg have joined what they call the race for zero. It's what they call a friendly competition," said WUSF Environmental Reporter Steve Newborn. "When they were asked what state could do to help them, the Tampa resiliency director said, 'Get off our backs, don't pass the preemption bill.'"

South Florida communities have expended their resilience focus. In the past, we've focused so much on sea rise. And (on Earth Day) it was all about emissions," said WLRN Environmental Reporter Jenny Staletovich. The City of Miami and Miami-Dade County both want to cut their emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

A county analysis of the source of those emissions found a 40 percent increase between 2008 and 2019. "They also broke down where all these emissions were coming from and more than 50 percent is from transportation," Staletovich said. "Traffic is a problem down here."

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.
Andrea Perdomo is a producer for WLRN News.