TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis celebrated a string of victories on April 30 as his fellow Republican lawmakers delivered on nearly all of his agenda. Now, he could be required to rack up some wins in court to keep them.
Some of DeSantis’ top priorities this year – an anti-riot bill, legislation to punish Big Tech censorship and banning private companies from requiring “vaccine passports” from customers – have all been labeled unconstitutional by critics.
Democrats claim HB 1, the anti-riot bill, infringes on the First Amendment right to protest, that SB 7072, the Big Tech crackdown, violates the tech giants’ free speech rights and SB 2006, the vaccine passports measure, is government overreach in a private company’s business.
Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, the only Republican to vote against the Big Tech bill, said it’s an unconstitutional overreach.
“This is a big government bill. This is a bill you would see in countries that we don’t want to talk about. Some that are 90 miles south of here. Some that are a little farther south,” he said during the Senate debate, referring to Cuba and Venezuela. “This is not the party that we are. We should be for speech. We should be for allowing for a private business to conduct its business without governmental interference.”
Brandes also noted a legislative analysis of the bill suggests it could be unconstitutional, specifically the parts of the bill that impose fines on social media platforms that remove users who are candidates for office and that censor users arbitrarily without providing a reason.
“Businesses cannot be compelled to host speech with which it disagrees absent a mandate that has been narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest,” the analysis states. “Some of the provisions of the bill may implicate First Amendment protections for business political speech.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida decried numerous bills passed this session, including the anti-riot bill, an elections bill restricting mail ballots and drop boxes, and one capping political donations to committees pushing a ballot measure.
“Instead of passing — or even holding committee hearings on — the myriad of bills related to police accountability that were introduced this session, legislators responded to the Black Lives Matter movement in Florida with a bill that criminalizes protesters and chills free speech,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “These incessant attacks on Floridians’ civil rights and liberties are simply shameful.”
DeSantis, though, says he is confident the legislation will withstand any legal challenges, which he believes are sure to come. He pointed to legal victories in his first two years in office over Scott Israel, who he removed as Broward County Sheriff for his handling of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting, and over the law requiring felons to pay outstanding fines and fees before being able to vote.
“There’s a cottage industry of lawsuits, that’s what happens when you do this,” DeSantis said. “There’s always going to be challenges. So, I think (lawmakers) were attentive to some of the pitfalls, and I think that will pass muster as well.”
One lawsuit has already been filed against the anti-riot bill in Orlando federal court. DeSantis said he doesn’t think it’s “viable.”
DeSantis suffered a legal defeat late last year, however, over the law he championed in 2019 banning sanctuary cities. A federal judge in December stuck down a portion of the law requiring local officials to take undocumented immigrants across state lines.
But another law requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortions, which was called unconstitutional by critics, hasn’t been subject to a legal challenge. Part of the reason could be DeSantis’ makeover of the Florida Supreme Court, when three vacancies early in his term allowed him to flip a 4-3 liberal court into a 6-1 conservative bench, which could dampen any hopes of prevailing in a lawsuit.
Senate President Wilton Simpson said the GOP-led Legislature isn’t deliberately pushing constitutional limits because there’s a new conservative court. Instead, it is taking on issues such as Big Tech censorship that haven’t been dealt with by the courts yet, he said.
“We had a court prior that had a lot of rulings that we didn’t really like but not liking something and respecting something are two different things,” said Simpson, R-Trilby. “Talking about packing the courts in Washington, D.C., today is completely laughable ... it’s completely disrespectful to the entire system to change the rules of the court system after the fact.”
Even if the courts were to knock down some of the new laws, the court battles could take years, and by then DeSantis will have claimed political victory as he eyes reelection in 2022 and a possible run for president in 2024. Democrats suspect that’s the main reason for skirting the constitution.
“I’m writing notes down for a speech that’s going to be given in Iowa in a couple of years,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, during the Big Tech bill debate. “This is not for your constituents.”