Mike Pheneger: A military veteran says DeSantis anti-protest law undermines 1st Amendment

A raised fist of a protestor at a political demonstration
We need a government that addresses our problems.

I am a retired U.S. Army intelligence colonel who served in Vietnam, Germany, Panama, Korea and the Middle East. In directing intelligence operations, I took care to ensure that they were conducted within the bounds of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; my oath was to support and defend the Constitution.

I expect elected officials to do the same.

I am appalled by the legislation recently proposed by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies in the Florida Legislature, which they claim is targeted at violent political protesters and rioters. In fact, it is a draconian attempt to undermine the First Amendment rights of speech, assembly and association in Florida.

The bill is misleadingly called The Combating Public Disorder Act. When introduced this year, DeSantis and his supporters said the legislation was urgently needed to safeguard the public from violent demonstrations like the one that occurred at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

That is beyond ironic.

The violence we witnessed on the U.S. Capitol, resulting in five deaths and major damage to both the Capitol and our national psyche, was incited by former President Donald Trump, a major political ally of DeSantis. The riot was conducted by radical supporters — some armed — of the Governor’s own base.

The Governor’s bill (HB 1/SB 484) has nothing to do with the events of Jan. 6. DeSantis first proposed this legislation last September in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killings of Black people by police.

Although he paid lip service to our “cherished” right to peaceful assembly, DeSantis introduced a bill designed to derail participation in demonstrations for equality and social justice.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators are understandably angry that our society is unable to end the frequent shootings of unarmed Black men and women by members of law enforcement and our collective failure to hold perpetrators responsible.

But BLM demonstrations in Florida have been largely non-violent and have not resulted in major injuries to demonstrators, the public, or police.

The real purpose of DeSantis’ bill is to criminalize peaceful protest.

The proposal allows a person participating peacefully in a political march to be charged with felony rioting if another person in that same demonstration commits a crime against a person or property. The police will be empowered to arrest everyone participating in a protest that turns violent through no fault of their own and to charge anyone present with felony rioting even if they didn’t engage in any violent and disorderly conduct.

Law enforcement already has the tools it needs to identify actual lawbreakers without arresting the innocent.

DeSantis’ law also decrees that if local elected officials in any way interfere with “the ability of a municipal law enforcement agency to provide reasonable law enforcement protection during a riot or unlawful assembly” the city becomes liable for any damage or injury suffered during that protest.

This strips traditional sovereign immunity away from city governments in this area. It also steals authority from elected officials and puts it in the hands of police who will effectively be able to tell those officials what city policy is.

In a democracy, local government has the ultimate say in policy that police are to follow. It’s only in police states that police call the shots.

DeSantis’ proposal also elevates the protections afforded to monuments and other memorials — including those celebrating the Confederacy — making their destruction punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Florida law already contains significant penalties for damage and destruction of property. We do not need harsher criminal penalties to protect memorials, including those that enshrine the Confederacy.

As a state, we should choose an approach radically different from that being proposed by DeSantis and his allies in the legislature.

We can begin by addressing some of the reasons for the protests we saw last summer.

— Take actions at all levels to eliminate police violence against Floridians.

— Remove Confederate memorials from public land. Congress recently passed legislation to rename many of the military posts honoring Confederates where I served during my 30 years in the Army. State and local officials need to act now to remove these shrines to slavery and the Confederacy.

More broadly, we need a government that addresses our problems. Don’t attempt to solve serious social and economic issues by arresting people who are trying to change them via peaceful protest.

A famous Supreme Court decision — Hague v. CIO, 1939 — made clear that public protest is an unalienable right.

“Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient time, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens,” the justices ruled.

And many Americans have died to protect that right. Military men and women served, fought and died to protect this right.

Tell your legislators to vote NO on HB 1/SB 484.


Colonel Mike Pheneger is a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer living in Tampa.

Guest Author

One comment

  • Harriett Jones

    March 25, 2021 at 9:22 pm

    Thank you Col. Pheneger. I am a military brat and respect law and order, not a fascist government that wants its citizens hobbled and their rights gutted.

Comments are closed.


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