It’s no secret that Florida has a large antisemitism problem. Swastikas graffitied onto a Holocaust museum, hate symbols projected onto buildings and conspiracy theory flyers dropped on lawns blaming Jews for the Ukraine War, COVID and everything else one can imagine. Unfortunately, nearly all of these acts have largely gone unpunished. Like the rest of the nation, Florida lacks the legal infrastructure to impose criminal consequences on antisemites.
Thankfully, that may soon change. The Florida Legislature has put forth House Bill 269, which would elevate many public displays of antisemitism that have plagued the state to third-degree felonies, up from their current misdemeanor status. Offenders could face heavy fines and up to five years in prison.
This legislation is urgently needed and has support from both the Jewish community and law enforcement. Police have consistently done what they can to repudiate antisemitic behavior but have bemoaned their lack of ability to prosecute due to the free speech protections that bigots grossly exploit.
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood condemned the antisemites who distributed flyers and hung banners in his county as “a radical group of cowardly scumbags,” but went on to say that while the acts are “reprehensible” and “disgusting,” they are protected “under that free speech umbrella,” tying his hands from stopping similar incidents from happening again.
While investigating antisemitic messages projected on TIAA Bank Stadium in Jacksonville, FBI Special Agent in Charge Sherri Onks, correctly noted that “hate crimes are not only an attack on the victim – these acts are meant to threaten and intimidate an entire community.” The Duval County Sheriff’s Office, however, released a statement declaring that it had not identified any crimes, as “the comments displayed do not include any type of threat and are protected by the First Amendment.”
HB 269 was introduced by Florida Representatives Randy Fine and Mike Caruso and is currently under review by the House Judiciary Committee. “I will not be complacent, and I will not sit around,” said Caruso at a news conference announcing the bill. “With that attitude, are we just going to wait for these haters to start breaking the glass windows and storefronts of the Jewish store owners again, like they did in the past, before we wake up?”
Fine said, “I guarantee the bill will pass. And I never do that.”
Some local governments aren’t waiting. The Jacksonville City Council held an emergency session in late January after a string of antisemitic projections, eventually passing an ordinance making it illegal to project messages on private structures without the owner’s consent.
Palm Beach County has also acted, passing a similar ordinance earlier this year after a cluster of antisemitic incidents.
This kind of legislation does more than impose much-needed accountability and deter future antisemitic incidents; it’s a powerful signal to Florida’s Jews that their state government takes their well-founded concerns seriously. That means a lot to a community that makes up less than four percent of the state, though Florida has the third-largest Jewish population in the country.
HB 269 should become a model for other states and the federal government, assuming it passes. Antisemitism is spreading like cancer nationwide and needs to be stopped, particularly at the government level, and this legislation gives law enforcement the prosecutorial tools they’ve been asking for.
At a time when more than half of America’s religiously motivated hate crimes target Jews, bills like HB 269 have never been more necessary. We’re tired of being targeted through a legal loophole.
To protect one of the country’s most vulnerable minorities, America should follow Florida’s lead.