Challenging Florida’s Anti-Protest Law: Dream Defenders v. Desantis

Date Filed: 05/11/2021

Florida’s response to the millions of people who took to streets to demand police accountability was to pass a law that criminalizes protest, and gives police greater authority to make arrests and use violence against demonstrators. H.B 1 is designed to chill Floridian’s first amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. 

By criminalizing our communities with new and enhanced felonies, for simply attending a demonstration, protesters now risk losing access to business licenses, housing, jobs, their right to vote and more — completely disrupting the ability to thrive and live in this state. Instead of working to build a public safety system that prioritizes communities and makes law enforcement accountable for its actions, the governor and the Florida legislature have moved to expand police power, and silence those seeking racial justice.

The law, enacted in April 2021, was passed in response to national protests against police violence and targets Black organizations and protesters demanding racial justice. In May 2021, The Dream Defenders, The Black Collective, Chainless Change, Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, and the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville filed a lawsuit alleging that the anti-protest legislation violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution by chilling protected speech and criminalizing protest activity in an effort to suppress the voices of Black-led organizations seeking racial justice.

A federal trial court previously issued a preliminary injunction blocking Governor DeSantis and certain local officials from enforcing key provisions of the anti-protest law. This injunction was appealed by Governor DeSantis and former Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams. While today’s decision seeks assistance from the Florida Supreme Court in interpreting the law’s scope, the injunction remains in place while the Florida Supreme Court takes up the question. 

The Eleventh Circuit’s order issued on January 10, 2023 validates the concerns expressed by Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District of Florida, who previously deemed the legislation’s broad definition of rioting to arguably criminalize expressive activity protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Eleventh Circuit also unanimously agreed, over the Governor’s objection, that the Governor is a proper party in the lawsuit and that the plaintiff organizations were entitled to sue him. 

The appeal will be heard before the Florida Supreme Court following oral arguments at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals 

Case Timeline

On May 11 2021, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), ACLU of Florida, and Community Justice Project filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida challenging this law. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Black-led organizations The Black Collective, Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward, Chainless Change, Dream Defenders, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, and the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville. The law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP is serving as counsel with the civil rights groups. The claims allege racial discrimination and First Amendment violations against Governor DeSantis, Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams, and Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony. The lawsuit argues that H.B. 1 violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution by chilling protected speech and criminalizing protest activity.

Read the full complaint here.

On July 14, 2021, LDF, the ACLU of Florida and Community Justice Project with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP serving as counsel, filed a motion for preliminary injunction to block key portions of H.B. 1. The motion challenges the vague provisions that maybe used to hold people criminally responsible for participating in a protest merely because completely unrelated individuals commit acts of violent or other crimes at the same protest. As a result of this vague and overbroad language, the state has effectively chilled the speech of the Black-led organizational plaintiffs and silenced dissent.

A copy of the motion for preliminary injunction is available here.

On August 9 2021, a federal judge allowed the lawsuit challenging H.B. 1 to move forward. The decision comes after defendant’s filed a motion to dismiss the case.

In his decision, Judge Walker highlighted plaintiffs’ allegations regarding Governor DeSantis’s inflammatory statements about Black Lives Matter protests and noted that they “are highly relevant to establish an inference of discriminatory purpose” in the enactment of H.B.1. He continued, “Here, the Governor allegedly proposed legislation with the purpose of discriminating against Black protestors, which the legislature then enacted in the form of H.B.1.”

Read the decision allowing the lawsuit to move forward here.

On September 9, 2021, in a major victory for civil rights and racial justice advocates, a federal judge granted a request made by civil rights groups to preliminarily enjoin enforcement of a key provision of H.B.1, Florida’s anti-protest law. The enjoined provision re-defines the crime of “riot” and imposes harsh penalties for those arrested under the law. Prior to the injunction, Plaintiffs were chilled from exercising their First Amendment right to protest out of fear that the law re-defining “riot” would allow them to be arrested while peacefully protesting. In a powerful opinion that evokes Florida’s history of leveling charges of incitement and rioting against racial justice advocates, Northern District of Florida Chief Judge Mark Walker enjoined Governor DeSantis and three Florida Sheriffs from enforcing the riot definition created by Section 15 of the law.

Read Judge Walker’s decision enjoining enforcement of H.B.1 here.

On January 10, 2023, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order that left in place an injunction against Florida’s anti-protest law, otherwise known as H.B. 1, while inviting the Florida Supreme Court to express its views on the law’s proper interpretation. The appeal will be heard before the Florida Supreme Court following oral arguments at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Here are some of the worst provisions:

This attempt by Governor Desantis and the Florida Legislature to criminalize peaceful protest and silence dissent is straight out of the Jim Crow playbook. We need laws that value Black life, hold law enforcement accountable, and re-center people in the definition of public safety, and H.B. 1 falls disastrously short of those needs.