Florida lawmakers target protests; opponents say free speech is on the line

A bill aimed at combating violent protests is sparking heated debate in Tallahassee and around Florida. Opponents, including Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, are speaking out and say it limits free speech.

Governor DeSantis has been pushing this bill as part of his message of "law and order," making it clear violent protests won't be tolerated, but it's not sitting well with some free speech groups, including the Florida ACLU.

Heated moments played out Wednesday in Tallahassee as impassioned people on both sides spoke up.

"We are a nation of laws, not a nation of mob rule," one speaker said."

The exchanges took place during the Senate Judiciary Committee's first debate for HB 1, which is also known as the 'Anti-Mob' OR 'Anti-Riot' bill.

People will think twice about joining a protest for fearing of becoming a felon," another speaker said.

If passed, it would increase penalties for crimes committed during a riot.

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"The most offensive part of this bill is that it defines a riot to include people who are peacefully protesting. That is nonsensical and very un-American," Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren said.

Warren is talking about a portion of the bill that essentially would mean if a peaceful protest turns violent anyone participating could be arrested for a felony.

In a letter sent to lawmakers, Warren urged legislators to reject the proposal.

Meanwhile, State Attorney Ed Brodsky supports the bill and is confident it won't infringe on free speech.

"It's important for the legislature to make sure that as this bill is crafted that we make sure that we do not trample on people's First Amendment constitutional right to protest," Brodsky said.

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As of right now, Warren's office is prosecuting 294 cases related to social justice protests that turned violent in Tampa last May. That's when police officers were injured, businesses were set on fire, and stores looted.

"Creating new laws and enhancing the penalties is a highly ineffective way to actually address public safety," Warren said.

As Warren explains, putting an end to the violent protests starts with addressing the social justice issues sparking peaceful protests.

This as lawmakers work to find a balance between combating violence and protecting peace.

"Leaders across Florida want people to have their constitutional right," Brodsky said.