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Don’t criminalize free speech, governor | Column
DeSantis' plan is designed to mobilize the Republican base, not solve a problem, writes an activist.
Protesters and activists take to the streets of downtown St. Petersburg on Sept. 3 as they mark the 100th day of protests in the city.
Protesters and activists take to the streets of downtown St. Petersburg on Sept. 3 as they mark the 100th day of protests in the city. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sep. 29, 2020

Gov. Ron DeSantis has pitched legislation that is being spun as a “get tough on Black Lives Matter protesters” proposal, but it’s really a thinly veiled effort to criminalize free speech. That’s un-American.

There are few things more American than our love of free speech. It is unequivocally protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that the government shall make no law abridging the free exercise of speech or the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Jaclyn Lopez
Jaclyn Lopez [ Provided ]

This right is most sacred to a nation born from a revolution seeking freedom from tyranny, and it has been essential in moving our nation forward through the civil rights era. But DeSantis' unconstitutional plan would strip away this most fundamental right. It would make “obstruction of traffic” during a protest a felony. What that means, or could mean, is anyone’s guess.

Would lingering too long in the crosswalk during a march for climate justice in downtown St. Petersburg become a felony? Would children marching for their future and to preserve a habitable Earth be arrested and charged with felonies? Or maybe a “clean water now” sign in a parade protesting St. Lucie water quality could be deemed an “obstruction to traffic” and, under DeSantis' reign, be a felony?

The DeSantis proposal would make the destruction of public property during a demonstration a felony. It’s not clear what this would mean either, since destruction of public property is already illegal. But whatever the penalty, if it happens during a demonstration it becomes a felony.

It would also make it illegal to annoy someone sitting at a sidewalk café when you walk by with your bullhorn demanding safe schools for our kids and our teachers, if someone else completely unrelated to you but in your “disorderly assembly” damages property.

And if you “fund” one of these “disorderly assemblies,” you could face liability under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. That would turn our nation’s anti-racketeering law for acts performed as part of a criminal organization into an anti-pot-stirring law with criminal and civil penalties.

What is the limit on what constitutes funding? Could it include buying supplies like paint for making signs to protest a poorly sited development? Or using a paid app to send messages to invite others to petition for a better Florida?

If you get arrested during a “disorderly assembly” and you’re not a resident of Florida, penalties would be increased. If you’re arrested during a “disorderly assembly” and you work for the state, you’d get fired and lose your benefits. If you are arrested for any of these “crimes” you’d also be denied bail until your first court appearance.

This is not a referendum on rioting. There are already laws that make it illegal to destroy property and injure people.

Make no mistake: As Donald Trump’s presidential election nears, DeSantis' proposal is a dog whistle. It’s designed to mobilize Trump’s base. And if it passes, it would criminalize free speech when the government doesn’t like what you have to say.

This is a shockingly un-American proposal that should trouble Floridians regardless of their political identification. And it reads hauntingly like the early stages of authoritarianism.

DeSantis is counting on Floridians being ignorant and divided. Let’s prove him wrong.

Jaclyn Lopez is Florida political director of the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.