Editor’s note: After this story published, the bill described in this story was withdrawn by its Republican sponsor. The next day, a related but different measure, HB 991, was filed by the same lawmaker. For a story on the updated bill, click here.
A Republican Florida lawmaker filed a bill Monday that could make it easier for plaintiffs to win defamation lawsuits against media outlets in the state — a key priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis’.
Since the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, defamation law has centered on the “actual malice” standard. That standard holds that in order to win damages from a defamation case, public figures — i.e., famous people, elected officials, etc. — have to prove publishers disseminated information knowing it was false, or with “reckless disregard” for the truth. Proving the outlet published false information is not enough.
The actual malice standard does not apply to private figures bringing defamation cases, unless they’re seeking punitive damages.
The measure, HB 951, would change who counts as a public figure. The bill would make it more difficult for defendants to argue the person suing is a public figure — in turn making it easier for the person bringing their suit to win their case.
Filed by Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, the bill would also broaden people’s access to Florida courts in defamation cases. Floridians would be able to sue publishers over alleged defamatory content in any county where they accessed the material.
If passed, the bill would also create new legal hurdles for publishers in defamation cases. The measure would make it so statements by anonymous sources are presumed false for the purposes of bringing a suit against a publisher. And outlets that fail to “verify or corroborate an alleged defamatory statement” would be demonstrating actual malice under the bill.
HB 951 is nearly identical to a bill pushed to lawmakers by DeSantis’ office last year. That bill, the existence of which was first reported by the Orlando Sentinel, was never filed.
Emails to Andrade requesting comment Monday were not immediately returned.
DeSantis, emboldened by a landslide victory in the 2022 election, renewed pressure on the Legislature to facilitate lawsuits against media outlets at a February event in Hialeah Gardens.
“They come after me — and they do do a lot of slander — but I fight back. I have a platform to fight back … I got thick skin,” he told a group of panelists at that event while seated in front a screen with the word “TRUTH” written in large lettering. “But you have some of these other folks who are just run-of-the-mill citizens, their only possible way of recourse would be to be able to bring an action (in court).”
Free press advocates criticized DeSantis’ push at the time.
“We are deeply concerned that Florida is attempting to turn back the clock on legally protected free speech that criticizes public figures and elected officials,” First Amendment Foundation executive director Bobby Block said in a statement then.
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