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Friday, August 19, 2022

Q&A with a Gainesville City Commissioner about the city’s potential lawsuit against Florida’s anti-protest bill

Opinions generic
Opinions generic

HB 1 is an anti-protest bill signed into law in Florida last month that sparked backlash from local governments and community leaders. The bill was proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in response to the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer of 2020. The purpose of the bill is to “combat rioting,” however, its broad definition criminalizes protesters as well. If a group of 25 people are protesting and one person commits a violent act, the police could arrest the entire group and charge them with a third degree felony of “committing a riot” for that one individual’s action. 

Not only does this bill provide regulations on protestors, but it also prohibits local governments from determining how to allocate funding for police to address the concerns of their local communities. It protects the confederate monuments, and shields counter-protesters from civil liability if they kill or injure a protester. 

However, many cities and organizations are fighting this bill. Gainesville is the first city to challenge the law since the state passed it. 

On May 20, the Gainesville City Commission recruited two law firms to challenge the recently passed HB 1 bill. The city attorney will work with the Community Justice Progress and Public Rights Project to draft the complaint. 

The city attorney has some hesitation regarding the lawsuit. Until there is a cause of action, such as the state attorney challenging a budget decision made by the city of Gainesville, they do not recommend moving forward with it. Real circumstances need to present themselves before a lawsuit can take place. 

However, should they wait that long or move forward with the proceedings? Can Gainesville even have the chance of winning a case like this? 

In an interview with commissioner Gail Johnson, who approved the motion to draft a complaint against the bill, I learned more about what this lawsuit could mean for Gainesville. 

What motivated you to take action and want to file a lawsuit? 

The motion was to direct city staff to work with the Community Justice Project and the Public Rights Project in order to draft a complaint and bring it back to us within thirty days. However, on Aug. 5 is when we are going to decide whether to take the next steps. 

We would be the anchor plaintiff. HB 1 is a terrible law. Targeting both individuals and us as a city. Not even just as a city, but as lawmakers. It essentially puts a target on our back. We are speaking out for the protected right of free speech.  Local governments are standing in solidarity with people who have the right to peacefully protest. This bill is a total overreach from the governor and attack on home rule.

Tell me a little more about the nonprofits you are working with.

They’re both fantastic organizations. Public Rights Project is a national organization that works with cities. The Community Justice Project focuses on social justice movements and cities specifically in Florida. There is also an additional legal entity they brought in out of D.C. An entire team of lawyers throughout the nation is working on this. We recognize how important their work is and how important Florida is for the fight towards racial justice. 

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It’s a national fight and a big deal. 

It’s my understanding that the main reason for this lawsuit is to reallocate resources to various programs within Gainesville from the police department’s budget. What programs would these funds be going to exactly?

That we are even having these conversations about a possible reallocation of staff and/or resources to a different department means there would be a decrease in funding for the police department. It is problematic that we cannot respond properly to our community that has repeatedly told us we need to think about youth services and what that would mean for our community. We technically could not do that with this law. While theoretically we can, if a state attorney or even a city commissioner or the governor has a problem with it, the governor can go line by line over our police budget and decide what he wants to do with it, not us. That right there is problematic. 

I’m a student and we know how politically active Gainesville is. This bill prohibits protesting or at least makes it harder to protest. Would this lawsuit help protect people’s right to protest? 

Not this specific lawsuit. There are different ways the litigation is being crafted around HB 1. For cities, it is about home rule and overreach of the governor on how we spend our budget. The other piece is about the protest activities. The ACLU, Dream Defenders, NAACP, the Black Collective and a few other groups are specifically focusing on the protest aspect of it. There are going to be multiple litigation strategies and multiple lawsuits. 

The part in the bill about protests that impacts cities is if there are any protests it makes the cities liable for them by waiving sovereign immunity in specific situations. If there is a “riot,” and we actually do not know what a riot is given they did not clearly state the definition in HB 1, then usually with sovereign immunity there is a cap for how much the city would be liable for. For any personal injury, wrongful death or property damage that occurs if we “fail to respond appropriately” that waves the immunity. We could be the hook for millions of dollars when usually we are only responsible for up to $200,000.

Do you all think you may have a chance at winning?

I don’t think there would be multiple attorneys from both state and national level if we didn’t think we could win. It is a huge investment of time and resources, right? I can’t see anyone investing that if there was not a chance at winning. 

Written by Sarah Hoffman

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