TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Republicans want to make it easier for people to sue media outlets for defamation and for legal purposes make anonymous sources “false” by default in related court cases.
Rep. Alex Andrade (R-Pensacola) introduced House Bill 951 on Monday, proposing legislation that would make defamation “purely a matter of state law.”
The bill would also let people sue publishers for alleged defamation in “any county where the material was accessed.”
The move comes just weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis held a roundtable discussion on “media defamation” and alluded to such legislation. Discussion of the topic during the roundtable, held Feb. 7, was titled a “Discussion on Legacy Media Defamation Practices.”
Speakers at the roundtable included Nick Sandmann, known for his standoff with a Native American protestor while a student at Covington Catholic High School in 2019, former Secretary of the Board of the Virginia Citizens Defense League Dennis O’Connor, Devin Freedman, an attorney and former U.S. government operative accused of selling black market evacuations by CNN during the nation’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Elizabeth Locke, a defamation and libel lawyer, Carson Holloway, a fellow at the Claremont Institute, and Michael Moynihan, a former Vice News, Daily Beast, and Newsweek reporter and correspondent.
The gathered guests of the governor’s roundtable spent the hour they were there discussing what they call ruinous effects on their lives after media stories about them aired. According to a release from the governor’s office at the time, current laws in Florida did not have “adequate protection” from defamatory or libelous speech by news companies.
“We’ve seen over the last generation legacy media outlets increasingly divorce themselves from the truth and instead try to elevate preferred narratives and partisan activism over reporting the facts,” DeSantis said in a statement. “When the media attacks me, I have a platform to fight back. When they attack everyday citizens, these individuals don’t have the adequate recourses to fight back. In Florida, we want to stand up for the little guy against these massive media conglomerates.”
During the roundtable, which opened amid clips from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and remarks by the governor, DeSantis made repeated reference to legacy media outlets. Among the companies under fire, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, and others were named as examples.
Subsequent requests to the governor’s office by WFLA.com to more specifically define what was considered a legacy media outlet have yet to be answered. The commentary on media’s alleged attacks on Americans are a frequent refrain from the governor, who regularly says “corporate media” or “legacy media” are unfairly targeting some individuals or groups due to their political biases.
Roundtable discussion at several points focused on the Sullivan decision by the Supreme Court.
“If we go back to the Founders, we are reminded that people have a right to their reputation. Reputation is a right as precious as one’s property, one’s life, one’s liberty, so another fundamental purpose of American law is to protect rights,” Holloway said. “The actual malice standard is an invention of the Supreme Court inconsistent with the way the Founders thought about libel and freedom of speech.”
Now, the legislation filed by Andrade is set up to directly bring that decision into a court challenge..
Since 1964, courts have relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which created a higher legal bar for public figures in defamation lawsuits. The ruling requires those in the public eye to prove that a defamatory publication was made about them with “actual malice” or “reckless disregard for the truth.” The ruling doesn’t apply to private figures in defamation cases, unless they’re suing for punitive damages.
The bill argues that the decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan “foreclosed many meritorious defamation claims to the detriment of citizens of all walks of life.” It would change the criteria who is considered a public figure, making it easier for them to sue for defamation.
“The federalization of defamation law fails to acknowledge that defamatory falsehoods are equally injurious to plaintiffs regardless of whether they are public officials, public figures, or private figures, and regardless of whether the alleged defamatory falsehoods relate to matters of official conduct or of private concern,” the bill states.
HB 951 claims publishers “regularly rely on anonymous sources which they know or should know are inherently untrustworthy.” Under the bill statements by anonymous sources will be “presumed to be false in a defamation cause of action.”
Should the bill pass, it would take effect July 1. The 2023 legislature has a Republican supermajority in both chambers, meaning its chances of passing are likely, though not a complete certainty.
The bill would likely face legal challenges on constitutional grounds, similar to Florida’s Senate Bill 7072 from 2021, the big tech-related “deplatforming” law, which is still on pause pending a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.