May 17, 2022 Why Florida’s New ‘Anti-Protest’ Law Could Signal Trouble for the Climate Movement

A resident watches as abortion-rights advocates stage a protest near the home of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on May 11, 2022 in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Credit: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
A resident watches as abortion-rights advocates stage a protest near the home of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on May 11, 2022 in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Credit: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Protesting in front of a private residence in Florida could soon land someone 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500 under a bill signed into law Monday by Gov. Ron DeSantis. While the new law is in reaction to demonstrations over abortion rights, it reflects a larger effort by Republican lawmakers to limit the ways Americans are allowed to protest, which could have broad and lasting consequences for the climate movement.

The legislation, which takes effect in October, makes it a second-degree misdemeanor to protest with the intention of harassing or disturbing someone in their home. It’s the latest effort to crack down on protesters by DeSantis, who pointed to recent demonstrations outside of the homes of Supreme Court justices living in Virginia as justification for the law. 

Those demonstrations came earlier this month after the leak of a draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito overturning 50 years of abortion rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade touched off a political firestorm. “Sending unruly mobs to private residences, like we have seen with the angry crowds in front of the homes of Supreme Court justices, is inappropriate,” DeSantis said in a statement Monday. “This bill will provide protection to those living in residential communities and I am glad to sign it into law.”

Florida’s legislation is similar to a growing number of “anti-protest” laws being enacted by Republican legislatures across the country in recent years that impose harsh new penalties on demonstrators, including Indigenous and climate activists who are protesting fossil fuel pipelines and power plants.

Social justice and environmental advocates have increasingly turned to protest and civil disobedience as a way to call for change in response to a spate of high-profile police killings of unarmed Black people and a lack of government action on climate change. Since 2017, at least 38 states have enacted such laws, according to the Informational Center for Not-For-Profit Law. Many impose harsh penalties on protesters, including making it a felony to trespass on property where “critical infrastructure,” such as fossil fuel pipelines and power plants, are operating, ICN’s oil and gas reporter Nicholas Kusnetz reported last year.

Those bills emerged after a pair of stinging losses for the pipeline industry. Activists had used civil disobedience and mass arrests to draw attention to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access projects, and the Obama administration eventually blocked both. States’ critical infrastructure legislation raised the stakes for protesters by increasing penalties for acts like blocking access to a construction site, in many cases converting the offenses from misdemeanors to felonies. Some laws allow prosecutors to seek 10 times the original fines for any groups found to be “conspirators,” prompting concerns from civil liberties advocates and environmental groups, who fear they could be roped into trials and face steep fines for having joined with broader coalitions that include an element of civil disobedience.

Left unchallenged, some legal experts say these laws could jeopardize climate protests in particular, just as more and more environmental advocates grow frustrated by political roadblocks to climate action and turn to public demonstrations and civil disobedience out of desperation. The Biden administration has pledged to enact sweeping climate reforms, but many of those have stalled as Republicans and right-leaning Democrats continue to raise hurdles.

Last fall, demonstrations amassed around the houseboat of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat who has impeded much of President Biden’s climate agenda. In October, nearly 50 people were arrested for protesting outside the office of Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, another centrist Democrat who has blocked much of Biden’s environmental efforts. And last month, more than 1,000 scientists from around the world staged demonstrations to decry a lack of action to address global warming, including several U.S. researchers who were arrested for locking their bodies to private property.

Florida’s new law should be especially concerning for climate activists, considering DeSantis’ popularity in the Republican party and his past attempts to limit free speech on progressive issues. DeSantis, who is seen as a possible contender with Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential election, signed an “anti-riot” protest law in 2021 that granted civil immunity to drivers who hit protesters blocking roadways. That law was later blocked by a federal judge, who said the bill was vague, overbroad and criminalizes “vast swaths of core First Amendment speech.”

“While there may be some Floridians who welcome the chilling effect that this law has on the Plaintiffs in this case,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in his ruling, “depending on who is in power, next time it could be their ox being gored.”

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