Joe Henderson: Sponsors might find a few surprises in their ‘anti-riot’ bill
Protesters at a Jacksonville rally seeking protection of abortion rights

Jacksonville abortion protest
Critics assume HB 1 is a response to Black Lives Matter. But what about anti-abortion protesters?

Florida Politics colleague Janelle Irwin is the host of a call-in show on WMNF radio in Tampa. Last Friday, she invited me to join her and one of our topics was the controversial HB 1.

That’s the so-called “anti-riot bill.”

It’s steaming through the Legislature, more than likely headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ desk. Critics argue it’s a blatant attempt to silence the Black Lives Matter protests. The American Civil Liberties Union said the bill “chills speech, silences dissent and criminalizes peaceful protesters advocating for racial justice.”

Supporters, aghast, say, That’s! Just! Not! So!

Anyway, a caller from Sarasota identified herself as an escort at Planned Parenthood. She wondered if the anti-riot safety measures applied to her and the clinic. She told of routine harassment from protesters and verbal intimidation from anti-abortion activists while leading women into the facility, many of whom aren’t even there for an abortion. Others say protesters block entrances to clinic parking lots.

Honestly, I hadn’t thought about that. I haven’t seen commentary on that point.

The bill is 61 pages, but a provision under the mob intimidation heading seems to answer the caller’s question.

“It is unlawful for a person, assembled with two or more other persons and acting with a common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will.”

Violation of this is a first-degree misdemeanor.

Hmmm. “… attempt to compel or induce, another person.”

That’s a routine occurrence outside many abortion clinics.

I’m going to take a wild guess here. I’ll bet the bills’ sponsors didn’t consider abortion clinics when they crafted this bill. But as the saying goes, a first-degree misdemeanor for the goose is a first-degree misdemeanor for the gander.

I asked Amy Weintraub, the Reproductive Rights Program Director for Progress Florida, if she had witnessed intimidation attempts that would seem to fall under this bill’s definition of a crime.

Her answer: “Definitely. I’ve witnessed it myself, and it’s disgusting.”

Abortion might be the hottest of hot buttons in this country, and probably always will be. Maybe that’s why the bill’s critics picked up an unlikely ally — the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. That group announced its opposition to HB 1.

In a statement, the FCCB called the bill “unnecessary and potentially harmful.”

According to the sponsor, the bill is intended to address public disorder in response to recent riots. However, any violence committed during a riot, or at any time, is already prosecutable, and it is unnecessary to raise penalties for those crimes,” the bishops wrote.

“Additionally, some broad terms in the bill could potentially criminalize some of our ministries’ public activities such as praying in front of an abortion facility, sidewalk counseling, and prayer vigils against the death penalty.”

Stephanie Fraim, President and CEO at Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, is no stranger to protests.

“We have several sites around the state of Florida where protesters are there regularly, sometimes every week and every day,” she said. “Sometimes it’s three people, and sometimes it’s been two hundred.

“Some of the things that are said to our staff are unkind, and some of the things that are said to our patients are cruel.”

However, she wants to make something clear. She doesn’t favor restrictions on peaceful opposition to abortions.

“We respect the right of anyone to assemble peacefully. We know it’s protected by the First Amendment, and we respect that. I love the fact that we live in this country and have that right,” she said.

“At times, it seems our protesters do seem to be a little aggressive, but if protesters around our facilities get out of hand, we call the police, and they respond. At one of our facilities in Fort Myers, we had someone using a bullhorn that was louder than permitted.”

Police diffused the situation.

But what if the law said the bullhorn squawker had already committed a crime? Wouldn’t that fall under the same category as a civil rights protestor who might face an accusation of intimidation?

That brings up another central argument against HB 1. There already are severe penalties for rioters who cause destruction. However, DeSantis is in full election mode for 2022 and badly wants to sign this bill anyway. It would be an extra helping of red meat to a base where many see BLM protesters on a mission to torch the suburbs.

“Whatever the law is, Planned Parenthood would follow it. I would hope any law enforcement would apply it equally,” Fraim said. “But those words (in the bill) are fairly vague and open to interpretation. This law, it’s unnecessary.”

 

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


One comment

  • Bev Mautner

    April 8, 2021 at 7:38 pm

    Thank you for an excellent article. You actually presented the issues and facts complete with quotes that had context. No bias. No dishonesty. No manipulating the truth. I was left thinking at what point does protesting end and criminality begin.? How much violence, harassment, rioting, and bullying is acceptable in the name of protesting . Is it OK to scare and intimidate others knowing that the law will not prosecute you? Unintended consequences are certainly possible. But, we have become tolerant of violence and that will only breed more violence like a cancer.
    You educated and informed the public as well as wrote a thought provoking article. I thank you. Great Job!!!

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