The Florida Senate Judiciary Committee has introduced Senate Bill 1220 and House Bill 991. This bill makes it easier for people to sue news outlets for defamation. Sidestepping decades of constitutional precedent and public opposition, First Amendment safeguards are threatened.
Image: AFT Human Rights Resources
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 20, 2023
By: Vaneti Ceus
Miami- This expansive bill is meant to make it easier for public figures or local citizens to successfully sue journalists and media outlets for defamation by lowering the legal thresholds established in the 1964 Supreme Court Ruling New York Times v. Sullivan. The court ruling specifically stated that the right to publish all statements was protected under the First Amendment and that public officials must prove that what was said against them was done with actual malice in order to be liable. House Bill 991 details that public figures would not need to show actual malice in order to prevail in a defamation lawsuit in certain circumstances. This bill also narrows the definition of “public figure” by saying that people who obtain public employment but not public office and those with a broad audience on social media would be exempted from being considered public figures. In addition, people whose fame or notoriety derived from the current accusations they're defending against are excluded from the public figure terminology. This bill even creates the presumption that a statement made by an anonymous source is false which reduces the legal protections for victims who choose to remain anonymous for the sake of their privacy.
Starting in March of 2023, when this bill was introduced, there has been strong public opposition on both sides to this bill. Representative Cory Mills argues, “If passed, they stifle all media voices whether liberal, conservative, or neutral that your constituents have come to trust and rely on, as well as any individual who chooses to exercise their rights to freedom of speech”. Sponsors of the bill like Representative Alex Andrade say that “this bill would make it easier for people who have actually been harmed by a defamatory statement to receive justice”. While this statement acknowledges the inherent impacts of the media, the bill itself takes an intimidating stance on free speech and it threatens many bedrock principles of the Constitution and of America. With the bill's large amount of blockades, it puts on what journalists can or can not say about public figures. This bill could make Florida a lawsuit magnet by creating a larger amount of frivolous lawsuits and placing stricter parameters on the type of information and sources journalists can or can not have.
This bill would also revise the state's laws towards the SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) which are meant to protect journalists from meritless legal actions meant to harass or silence reporters or other news outlets. Currently, these SLAPP laws allow reporters and news outlets to seek the early dismissal of lawsuits that show SLAPP actions and receive compensation from the plaintiff for attorney fees. If passed, Senate Bill 1220 would end that provision by requiring that plaintiffs only have to pay attorney fees if the statement or statements being challenged were not negligently made. The parameters of this bill go down hard on the spoken and written word that is released to the press. This would infringe on citizens' rights to freely speak on others and matters of public importance which is something that can impose significant constitutional problems if not addressed properly.
This bill harps on reporter's and journalists' freedoms and hinders the level of honest and knowledgeable news that is being reported to audiences. It is pivotal for the betterment of our society that outlets are able to have the freedom to speak openly about their government. In order for our democracy to be successful and for citizens to make logical decisions they need to be given all of the facts first. If they are not given that, the future of free speech and the reputation of the press in America would never be the same again.
Deputy Director of the Media Relations Team at Teens for Press Freedom, Aydin Levy, shares that “while it’s important that misinformation is not spread throughout the media, a bill that has the ability to harm the right of freedom of speech goes beyond this principle. It's critical to recognize the significance of the First Amendment and the beauty of journalism. We must uplift voices and be exposed to various perspectives which are vital for improving our society. If passed, the bill can have a detrimental effect on both writing and how the Constitution is valued and upheld in America”.