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Hate Crime or Free Speech? New Law Pushes Its Way through the Florida Legislature

A new bill would make it a third-degree felony to show “animus” on the basis of religious or ethnic clothes, emblems, or heritage – but a First Amendment attorney says the law won’t pass the constitutional test.

TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — A new bill designed to crack down on hate crimes and anti-religious displays skated through the Senate Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice.

“This bill signals that Florida will punish to the fullest extent of the law any intimidation on the free practice of religion.” SB 994’s sponsor, Sen. Alexis Calatayud (R-Miami) said. “The free state of Florida will not tolerate harassment, threat, or intent to harm our robust and vital ethnic and religious communities.”

The legislation would impose a third-degree felony for “littering” someone’s property with materials demonstrating “religious or ethnic animus”, threatening another for displaying religious or ethnic insignia, or defacing a memorial, cemetery, or school associated with religious or ethnic heritage.

“Animus” is defined as “intent to intimidate or threaten or intent to do harm” – leaving the door open for wide interpretations of the law. Critics of hate crime legislation often argue that it violates the First Amendment. And that’s the case here too, says attorney Barak Lurie, who’s specialized in First Amendment cases.

“These laws can’t really fly. People seem to have no idea what the First Amendment means – they think it includes a right not to be offended. You can’t specifically single out certain groups, religious or not, based on symbols and clothing and say they have a right not to be offended,” Lurie tells The Florida Standard. “The exception is ‘fighting words’ – that is, if someone is directly inciting violent acts against another person,” he adds.

Sen. Calatayud clarified her bill’s impetus, citing an increase in hate crimes throughout Florida.

“Our state has seen an exponential increase in ethnic and religiously motivated crimes, threats, and intimidations,” she stated, highlighting that this directly “infringes on constitutionally protected rights of free religious practice.”

She continued, pointing out the specific rise in attacks on the Asian and Jewish communities in recent years: “1 out of 6 Asian Americans experienced a hate crime or incident in 2021, an increase from 1 in 8 in 2020. The rise in antisemitic activity is nationwide, and over 50 incidents in Florida have occurred this year – a 50 percent increase over prior years.”

SB 994 ran through committee uncontested, and will now head to its final committee stop: the Rules Committee. In conjunction with its House companion HB 269, the legislation has a high chance of becoming law – although it may ultimately be struck down by the Supreme Court.