News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cracks begin to emerge in an ongoing debate over Florida defamation laws

Reporter. Taking notes. Media interview.
Mihajlo Maricic/wellphoto - stock.adobe.com
/
Adobe Stock
Reporter. Taking notes. Media interview.

An effort to make it easier to sue journalists and bloggers is now heading to the House floor.  The bill is a multi-year effort aimed at setting up a challenge to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan—a key precedent that undergirds First Amendment freedom of speech and freedom of the press rights.

 
The bill sponsor, Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, has described the U.S. Supreme Court case as "a single case from 1964 that created, from scratch, legislative policy from the bench," and some current high court justices have questioned whether the case needs to be revisited.

New York Times v. Sullivan set a precedent that public figures needed to prove actual malice—that is, that a journalist knowingly and intentionally published false information aimed at causing them harm, in order to sue for defamation. Andrade's Florida bill removes that intentionality, and would also make it so that there's an automatic presumption of actual malice if an anonymous source makes a false claim.

The measure has generated a great deal of pushback, with conservative media outlets leading the way in the opposition.

"These voices reflect the voices of the constituents who voted many of you into office," said Florida First Amendment Foundation Executive Director Bobby Block.

And while the bill so far has gotten strong Republican support there are signs of trouble ahead. The Senate companion bill hasn’t moved since earlier this month, and Republican Rep. Webster Barnaby joined Democrats in voting no without comment during the bill's latest committee hearing.

Conservative figures and outlets have also recently been hit with hundreds of millions of dollars in fines over defamation claims. Most notably, FOX News was forced to pay nearly $800 million to a voting systems company it admitted to defaming in its coverage. Rudy Giuliani

Reporter. Taking notes. Media interview.
Mihajlo Maricic/wellphoto - stock.adobe.com
/
Adobe Stock
Reporter. Taking notes. Media interview.

, at one time a lawyer for former President Donald Trump, was also sued and lost a defamation case filed against him by Georgia elections workers.

Andrade himself has also gone back-and-forth with a conservative radio station owner over the bill. Andrade has largely brushed off the media criticism.

“Shocking. Media outlets and their attorneys are afraid that a bill that protects your reputation and recognizes that your reputation has value, (they) don’t want it to pass," he said in his closing statements on his bill.

But it’s not just large media companies and conservative outlets that have concerns.

 “No one wants to be talked about. But everyone has a right to their opinion without legal and financial consequence," said Chris Smith, a gun shop owner in North Florida who is being sued by a Santa Rosa County Commissioner over statements made in an anti-tax promotion.

The commissioner is represented by the law firm that employs Andrade but is not being represented by Andrade himself.