While the protests in Florida have generally been peaceful, Governor DeSantis is making proposals that are clearly aimed at intimidating protestors and allowing the legal suppression of constitutional rights. One key part of the proposal is that crimes most commonly committed by protestors be increased from misdemeanors to felonies. These include obstructing traffic during an unpermitted protest and participating in a protest that involved property damage or “harassment.” Felony convictions are not only far more serious but can also impose life-long penalties on citizens. There are also specific proposals that seem to run counter to basic rights and proportionality in sentencing: throwing an object at a police officer would result in a minimum six months in jail, people arrested at a protest would be denied bail and would effectively be presumed guilty until they could prove they were not a danger. There are two proposals that are even more worrisome.
One is a proposal that a motorist would be indemnified if they caused “death to a person who obstructs or interferes with the regular flow of vehicular traffic.” The fact that drivers hit protesters 66 times between May 27 and July 9 2020 and at least 19 may have been malicious. There have been cases in which drivers have hit and killed protestors and have been charged with homicide. This law would not, of course, apply to sports fans or other folks obstructing or interfering with the regular flow of vehicle traffic—it specifically singles out protestors. A such, it seems clear this is designed to intimate protestors by effectively legalizing violence against them.
Another proposal is that racketeering laws could be used against protestors. One concern is that this would allow the state of Florida to charge everyone involved with a protest for being part of a criminal conspiracy. With this in place as a law, a few people who acted violently could suddenly transform peaceful protestors around them into criminals. This law would also provide a clear and seductive incentive for people to infiltrate a protest to engage in violence or destruction of property, thus providing an excuse to arrest peaceful protestors. As would be expected, there is no comparable proposals to, for example, charge sports fans with a criminal conspiracy if some of their number started acting violently or destructively. They would, as would be just and correct, be dealt with as individual law breakers. This proposal is clearly designed to intimidate protestors and allow unjust mass arrests.
While the protestors and the left will obviously oppose these laws, folks to the right of center should also oppose them—at least if they are consistent. Conservatives speak often of the importance of Constitutional rights and zealously defend the Second Amendment. Consistency and love the Constitution should provide them with excellent reasons to oppose these proposals. Conservatives also rail against big government, excessive laws, and government overreach. These are paradigm cases of what they profess to hate. After all, existing laws suffice unless one’s goal is to intimidate people so they will not exercise their First Amendment rights and to unjustly punish those who bravely do so. To illustrate, if someone kills a person with their car in a way that is blameless, then they already face no charges. If an individual protestor engages in violence or destruction of property, they are already committing a crime. Conservatives should also consider that while the use of these laws against BLM and liberals might be delightful, laws are rather like weapons—they can easily be wielded by someone else in a manner you might not like. Imagine, if you will, that Biden wins in 2020 and that eventually the Democrats come to power here in Florida. In that future, it is easy to imagine conservatives are out in the streets protesting the left—but the left would now have these oppressive laws to use against them. Good law making requires thinking from both ends of the law and considering future consequences.
There are also obvious moral concerns with these proposals. In the case of the vehicle proposal, this will encourage people to escalate what is already occurring—attacking protestors with cars. I do understand that protestors can be annoying as can anybody else who blocks the flow of traffic. I live near Florida State and have found that it is wisest to just stay home on football game days. But this hardly justified hitting a person with a car. Also, as noted above, if the collision with a pedestrian is a real accident, then that is already not a crime. It is also already not a crime to injure someone in legitimate self-defense. This proposed law, at its core, exists to serve as a vehicular version of Florida’s stand your ground laws. That is, it legalizes hurting or killing people provided that the driver can convincingly claim that the victim was obstructing traffic or seen as a threat. This proposal would make it much easier for people to commit and get away with vehicular assault and murder—which seems to be the intention. From a moral standpoint state intimidation of its citizens and its effectively sanctioning violence is horrific—the exact opposite of what states are supposed to do, namely protect the lives and liberties of its citizens. I do suspect that some folks are not worried about this proposal because they think it only benefits the right—the left generally does not drive cars into right-wing protests. If they did, I wonder if this proposal would be made.
The racketeering proposal is also morally awful. It is aimed at intimidating citizens into not exercising their rights and provides a perfect tool for people hostile to the protest to get the state to arrest everyone associated with the protest. Presumably, DeSantis believes that the left is unlikely to use this tactic against conservative protests or he thinks it is worth the risk. There are, of course, the usual moral concerns about guilt by association. We do not, for example, think that all the football fans are accountable for the actions of the few who engage in violence—even if they are all fans of the same team. Only those engaging in the misdeeds are accountable. The same holds true for protestors—only those who engage in violence should be accountable for that violence.
These proposals are morally awful and, if enacted, will cause considerable harm to the liberties and lives of the citizens of Florida. That is, they will most likely work exactly as intended.