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Critics Say Anti-Protest Bill In Florida Threatens Freedom Of Speech

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Lawmakers in Florida are moving forward with a bill that imposes new penalties on those who act badly during protests. The measures were proposed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in response to Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd. Republicans who control Florida's legislature say the bill protects law and order. Democrats and civil rights groups say it violates free speech protections and targets racial minorities. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: When Governor DeSantis unveiled plans for the bill in September, he was quite clear about what inspired it.

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RON DESANTIS: I think that this has been a really, really sad chapter in American history. Now, in Florida...

ALLEN: That was just several weeks after protests erupted following the death of George Floyd.

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ALLEN: At this protest in Miami in June, several people were arrested for vandalizing a statue of Christopher Columbus. Under the proposed law, if the damage were great enough, that would be a felony. On the whole, protests here were mostly peaceful, something DeSantis acknowledged.

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DESANTIS: We are not going to let Florida go down the road that some of these other places have gone.

ALLEN: Florida's House has already passed its version of the governor's proposal. It raises the penalties for violence, theft, burglary and property damage committed during protests, making some former misdemeanors felonies. The bill creates a new crime - mob intimidation. And it also reacts to the defund police movement, allowing officials to appeal any decision to reduce funding to law enforcement. At a hearing in Florida's Senate today, Democrat Gary Farmer said the bill was an attack on freedom of speech and the right of people to peacefully protest.

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GARY FARMER: This language could be used and interpreted and applied in a way to subject peaceful protesters to punishment for crimes that they simply happen to be present for.

ALLEN: The sponsor of the bill - Senator Danny Burgess, a Republican - filed it on January 6 and has cited the Capitol insurrection as one of the inspirations for the measure. At today's hearing, he conceded that the bill actually was drafted long before that, but he maintained the measure wouldn't deter peaceful protests. In fact, he said it would do the opposite.

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DANNY BURGESS: It's my hope that this will preserve and protect the right to peaceful protests and further detract from those who try to take away from the merits of that protest.

ALLEN: Some of the toughest questions for Burgess came from Democratic State Senator Bobby Powell. Powell, who's African American, asked the bill's sponsor to think back to 1965, when former Congressman John Lewis was one of many who were brutally attacked by police when they attempted to march over a bridge in Selma, Ala.

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BOBBY POWELL: Would he be subject to criminal penalties under this particular piece of legislation?

ALLEN: Following discussions about penalties protesters would face for blocking roadways or assaulting police, it was a question that clearly made Burgess uncomfortable. The attack on protesters that day, he said, was shocking and a stain on U.S. history.

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BURGESS: I don't believe anything in this bill would ever not protect somebody like John Lewis.

ALLEN: Burgess said he'd never bring forward a bill that's racist. But along with other Republicans, he opposed a series of unsuccessful amendments that would have set up procedures for monitoring the new law's racial impact. One of those speaking in opposition to the bill was James Golden, an AME church minister.

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JAMES GOLDEN: This is not about race. It's worse than that. It's about power and about the abuse of power.

ALLEN: With Republicans in control in Florida, the bill is expected to be approved by the Senate and signed by the governor. Similar bills are being considered in several other states.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF COURTNEY BARNETT SONG, "DEPRESTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.