Florida GOP State Rep. Alex Andrade proposed a bill that would simplify the process for fellow Republican officials, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, to file defamation lawsuits against media and other “critics,” Truthout reports.
Per Tampa Bay Times, Andrade’s legislation reflects one of DeSantis’ “key priorities.”
Regarding defamation law, the United States Supreme Court New York Times v. Sullivan decision states, according to Tampa Bay Times, for one “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.
“H.B. 951 laments that the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan has ‘foreclosed many meritorious defamation claims to the detriment of citizens of all walks of life’ by placing such claims under the purview of the federal government and establishing a high standard of proof.“Florida GOP State Rep. Alex Andrade
However, the Oyez Project says the ruling maintains “to sustain a claim of defamation or libel, the First Amendment requires that the plaintiff show that the defendant knew that a statement was false or was reckless in deciding to publish the information without investigating whether it was accurate.”
First Amendment lawyer and Director of Advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), Seth Stern said,” DeSantis continues to make clear his disdain for freedom of speech and the press and to prioritize censoring dissent over governing.”
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Similarly, another First Amendment attorney, Floyd Abrams, noted in a Law&Crime interview “it’s blackletter law that a state cannot constitutionally provide less protection in libel litigation than the First Amendment requires.” Cornell University defines “blackletter law” as “the well-established legal rules that are certain and no longer disputable.”
“Abrams says Andrade’s bill “intentionally” disregards the blackletter law.
“If Governor DeSantis, a Harvard Law graduate, thinks the statute is constitutional, he’s forgotten what he was taught,” Abrams added. “If he’s looking for a way to offer the Supreme Court a case in which it might reconsider settled law, who knows. But what’s clear is that it is today and tomorrow facially at odds with the First Amendment.”
Stern noted the bill would “would do nothing for ordinary Floridians but would allow government officials and celebrities to harass and even bankrupt their critics with expensive litigation,” which media attorney Matthew Schafer describes as “a gift to the ruling class.”
Tampa Bay Times reports that if the bill becomes law, Florida residents could “sue publishers over alleged defamatory content in any county where they accessed the material.”
Stern offered further insight into why the legislation would hinder First Amendment rights, calling on the state legislature to “reject this political stunt,” as residents “should not tolerate their governor’s experiments in authoritarianism in their name and at their expense.”
He added, “It would stifle investigative reporting by presuming any statements attributed to anonymous sources to be false despite that (or, given DeSantis’ ambitions, maybe because) confidential sources have literally brought down presidents in this country.”
The attorney concluded by calling on the United States Congress to “safeguard the First Amendment by codifying Sullivan and ensuring that the press and public are protected from politically-motivated defamation lawsuits.”