TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Republicans want to make it easier for people to sue media outlets for defamation.
Rep. Alex Andrade (R-Pensacola) introduced House Bill 951 on Monday, legislation that would make defamation “purely a matter of state law.”
The move comes just weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis held a roundtable discussion on “media defamation” and alluded to such legislation.
Guests spent an hour discussing what they said were the ruinous effects media stories have had on their lives. Among the companies under fire were CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post and NBC.
The roundtable included speakers like Nick Sandmann, the former Covington Catholic High School who sued a number of media outlets for alleged defamation. In a viral video, Sandmann could be seen standing nose to nose with Native American rights activist Nathan Phillips during a confrontation that critics said was racially motivated, although he has denied it.
At the time, the governor’s office said current laws in Florida did not have “adequate protection” from defamatory or libelous speech from news companies.
The governor has regularly said “corporate media” or “legacy media” have unfairly targeted some individuals or groups due to their political biases. WFLA.com has asked the governor’s office to explain what companies are considered “legacy media” outlets, but our requests have yet to be answered.
“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.”
The roundtable discussion also focused on the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. Since 1964, courts have relied on the ruling, 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 legislation filed by Andrade is set up to directly bring that decision into a court challenge.
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.
The bill would also let people sue publishers for alleged defamation in “any county where the material was accessed.”
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.