“Breathing space" is what the U.S. Supreme Court said the First Amendment needs in order to protect the nation's profound commitment to the free exchange of ideas. There needs to be wiggle room for freedom of speech to flourish. And that means protection from having every misstep by a speaker or a publication qualify as lawsuit fodder.
In dual rulings by the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday, the state's high court ensured the presence of some of that breathing space for the First Amendment. In Jews for Jesus Inc. vs. Edith Rapp, the court struck down the common law tort of invasion of privacy by false light, saying it is not recognized in Florida. The court then applied that judgment in Joe Anderson Jr. vs. Gannett Co. Inc.
In Anderson, a jury in 2003 awarded Joe Anderson, a Florida highway contractor, more than $18-million in damages for a story that appeared in the Pensacola News Journal in 1998. The false light claim emanated from a few paragraphs in a piece about environmental issues and Anderson's paving company. The story stated that years earlier Anderson had shot and killed his wife in what was officially deemed a hunting accident. The story also noted that Anderson had filed for divorce just days before the shooting. Anderson claimed that the story implied that he had murdered his wife even though there was no such allegation.
The other case involved a Palm Beach County woman who sued the Jews for Jesus organization for publicizing in its newsletter that she had prayed in a Christian manner with her stepson, who is active in the group.
Florida law already protects people from libel and slander when the media get it wrong. The primary problem with the false light claim is that it awards damages when all the information in a media report is true but because of the way facts were arranged or omitted, some readers may draw inaccurate conclusions. The high court said that this cause of action raises too great a danger of "unreasonably impeding constitutionally protected speech."
Meanwhile, the court said that those who are injured by press reports that imply scurrilous and false things about them may sue under Florida's defamation law. This is reasonable, because the defamation statute explicitly limits damages when a retraction is published. By allowing the media time to correct the record, the press is protected from the kind of open-ended liability that leads to self-censorship. Thursday's opinions protect media outlets that print the truth, and that is good for Florida and for democracy.