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Palm Coast Monday, Mar. 29, 2021 2 weeks ago

OPINION: Anti-protester law will further erode trust of law enforcement

Democracy can be messy. But as Americans, our fundamental right to peacefully advocate for causes we believe in is an act of patriotism.
by: Guest Writer

Updated March 31 to reflect that the vote was in the House only. (This was the Observer's mistake, not the author's.) Updated again April 1 to remove any mention of a fire extinguisher.

by: James Manfre

As a retired sheriff, I’m concerned that the politicians in the Florida House have passed a new bill based on a knee-jerk reaction — and fear — rather than the facts. Gov. Ron DeSantis and other elected officials appear poised to sign a law that would crack down on our constitutionally protected right to free speech and peaceful protest. They claim House Bill 1 is meant to protect public safety, but it will only achieve the opposite. Their bill will set a dangerous precedent that would further destroy trust between law enforcement and communities, fail to improve our safety, all while taking away one of our most basic rights. 

House Bill 1 is an assault on our First Amendment rights. This bill criminalizes peaceful protests in Florida for citizens seeking nothing more than the basic civil rights guaranteed to all people under the Constitution. 

As a sheriff, were there times when protests made my life more difficult? Sure. Democracy can be messy. But as Americans, our fundamental right to peacefully assemble and advocate for causes we believe in is an act of patriotism, no matter our political opinions. Our elected officials, who have sworn to uphold the Constitution, should be fighting to protect that right, not take it away.

Gov. DeSantis and his legislative allies would have you believe they’re taking away our rights on behalf of the law enforcement community. Don’t buy it. This bill will not empower law enforcement to improve public safety. If this is signed into law, it will encourage violence against peaceful protesters by allowing counter-protesters to avoid civil liability for injuring or killing a protester, whether they shoot them with a gun or even run them over with a car.

We saw what happened in our nation’s capital on Jan. 6. The Capitol Police officers who bravely stood their ground to defend lawmakers came under attack. One of those officers was killed and more were injured.

Every Floridian wants safe communities. Gov. DeSantis and his allies in the Legislature are willing to disregard our safety just to score cheap political points by claiming to make us safer when they’re doing nothing of the kind. Instead of leading, they are cynically using the anti-American insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building to try to make peaceful protests a crime. Let’s be very clear: what happened at the Capitol was not a peaceful protest. People died. 

We already have laws on the books to address safety in public gatherings, including protests. House Bill 1 is political theater, not a public safety solution.  

Law enforcement already has the tools necessary to respond to violent criminals and vigilantes. Instead of addressing the demands of public safety organizations, DeSantis’ bill will only make policing harder by encouraging unskilled, unqualified people to commit acts of violence on those with whom they disagree.

This bill will make it harder to prosecute murderers by adding new loopholes defense attorneys can use to shield their clients from accountability. Even the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers opposes this bill. They say it's "too broad an attack” on our rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. They go on to describe it as “a solution in search of a problem” saying that it “solves no real crisis because current laws address the same concerns, without the attacks on due process and civil liberties.”

It’s not every day sheriffs and criminal defense lawyers agree. When we do, I’d suggest the politicians in Tallahassee listen and that the people they represent make their voices heard. House Bill 1 is a senseless power move that will put innocent people in danger.

James Manfre was the sheriff of Flagler County from 2001 to 2005 and again from 2012 to 2016. During his tenure he implemented community policing and was one of the first sheriffs in Florida to deploy body cameras.

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