Lawsuit Challenges Florida’s ‘Anti-Riot’ Law Criminalizing Protest

Interview with Aaron Carter Bates, civil rights attorney, conducted by Scott Harris

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Combating Public Disorder bill on April 19, a law that the governor and state legislature says was written in response to mass protests against police brutality following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May. While the vast majority of anti-police violence protests last spring and summer were peaceful, Republicans in 34 states have proposed more than 80 measures similar to that adopted by Florida.

DeSantis boasts that the new law is the “strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement measure in the country,” but critics maintain that the measure infringes on free speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as violating protections under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Among other provisions, Florida’s anti-riot bill creates a new crime called “mob intimidation;” grants civil legal immunity to people who drive into and injure protesters blocking a road; allows authorities to hold arrested demonstrators from posting bail until after their first court date; increases the charge for battery on a police officer during a riot and requires cities to receive state approval before cutting police budgets. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with civil rights attorney Aaron Carter Bates, who talks about the federal lawsuit he recently filed on behalf of the group Lawyers Matter Task Force, which challenges the constitutionality of the new state law.

AARON CARTER BATES: In terms of the law and the claims we brought, the one that’s getting the most coverage is obviously the violation of the First Amendment, that we alleged in the complaint. And that arises under the fact that the bill banned without defining what it means. It bans “riots and inciting a riot.” And the problem with that is that under the bill, what a riot is so vague that you’re basically taking your own risk of felony prosecution in your own hands by stepping out and demonstrating on any dissenting opinion, because you don’t know if that will constitute a riot or not. Not only that, but those arbitrary numbers that constitute a peaceful demonstration as opposed to a riot — for example, if Shannon and I go out and oppose, the low wage being paid to teachers, but then you join us as the third party under the law passed by Gov. DeSantis, we would be swept up in a felony prosecution as a result.

So the bill is just so vague and so broad that it just serves to ban and penalize protected speech. So that’s the First Amendment violation. The Eighth Amendment violation is that if arrested under the bill, you’re barred bail until your first appearance, which is a clear violation of the Constitution. And then you’re denied due process of law, which is a violation of the 14th Amendment. And, you know, I just want to point out for your listeners and also something I don’t think Floridians know is that, this governor of ours has been has been on TV with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, bragging about the fact that Florida has had no acts of violence during a demonstration that resulted in deaths or destroyed buildings. And he bragged about that fact. But then he turned around and passed what he called the most “pro-law enforcement” bill in the country. And he passed that bill knowing that less restrictive bills had been struck down by federal courts in Virginia and South Dakota. So clearly this is just, a badge on the bet of a political run for president in 2024.

SCOTT HARRIS: I believe I read somewhere that you were actually planning to hold a rally against this bill, but then of course the provisions in the law itself might jeopardize anyone who would attend such a rally. And that’s a great way to make real and illustrate the fact that this new law signed by Gov. DeSantis in Florida chills free speech and dissent.

AARON CARTER BATES: And, that’s exactly right. There’s a specific vigil that was planned on the 24th of April last Saturday to commemorate George Floyd and others who have lost their lives due to violations of civil rights. And Shannon and her organization came to me and said, “Hey, we’re going to go out and provide funding and training around this vigil venture. Everybody’s civil rights are protected. What do you think?”

And I told her “Look, I would not go out there because, A. You don’t know what you can or can’t do. And as an attorney, if you get charged with a felony, you can lose your all license. So not a good idea.” And then when I sat down and began to read the bill, I realized just how egregious the bill was. I mean, any lawyer at a law school could read the bill and determine the unconstitutionality of it within five minutes. So I don’t know how it made it out of committee and in the Capitol, but it did. And hopefully the federal courts here in Orlando will be able to put this bill where it belongs, which is in the trash.

SCOTT HARRIS: Aaron, there’s precedent in knocking down some of these laws that restrict free speech and the right to dissent and protest out there in America. Do you have a concern at all that the many judges appointed by Donald Trump — some of them viewed as unqualified by the (American Bar Association) and many of them holding extremist views — that these precedents that protect free speech and dissent and protest may be in jeopardy and it could come through Florida’s law and it could come from some of these other states that are also putting similar laws in place?

AARON CARTER BATES: I thank you for that question because ironically, much like the voter fraud allegations after the election, it was President Trump’s appointees that summarily dismissed 40-plus lawsuits on election fraud. And I think if you look at the less restrictive bills that were passed in Virginia, in South Dakota that were struck down by federal courts — if I’m not mistaken, both courts were President Trump appointees. So even after 15 years, I still have some faith in law. I do believe that most, if not all, federal judges will sit down and look at this law and say it very clearly violates the Constitution. So I’m a very pessimistic attorney and my clients won’t say that, but I feel pretty confident about the merits of this case.

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