First Amendment advocates sound the alarm on new Florida anti-defamation bill

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Governor Ron DeSantis first called for legislation challenging longstanding precedent on defamation claims earlier this month.


Now, a bill answering that call has been filed.

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The legislation would dramatically change defamation laws and challenge U.S. Supreme Court precedent that has, for nearly 60 years, protected free speech and journalism.

But, First Amendment advocates warn the impacts of the law could go far beyond news gathering organizations.

“It’s about making it easier to sue anyone who said something that you don’t like,” Bobby Block with the Florida First Amendment Foundation said.

Block said while DeSantis pitched the bill as a way of helping regular people who find themselves unjustly caught in the media’s crosshairs, the bill in its current form goes much further.

It changes the definition of who is considered a public figure and reduces the threshold for public officials to prevail in defamation lawsuits.

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That second part Block argues, should concern politicians more than anyone else.

“Who attack their critics, who attack their enemies, using sometimes the most horrific language,” Block said.

We asked the governor on Thursday what he made of the bill in its current form.

He said he hadn’t read it yet, but maintained his goal is to protect everyday people, not politicians.

“You have other people who do not have the platform that I have who get targeted,” DeSantis said.

But when the governor listed examples where he argued the media ran afoul, he highlighted stories on state policy.

“You just had on MSNBC, you had the reporter saying that ‘Governor DeSantis does not want students to learn about slavery and its aftermath’,” DeSantis said.

Block said the mixed messaging makes it difficult to understand exactly what the governor’s true intent for the legislation is, but Block argues in its current form, the bill does little to accomplish his stated goal of protecting everyday Floridians.

“On the contrary, defamation and slander lawsuits have historically and traditionally been used by rich and powerful people against their critics,” Block said.

Action News Jax has reached out to the bill’s sponsor Representative Alex Andrade (R-Pensacola) for the past two days for an interview on the legislation, but still has not heard back.

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So far, the bill hasn’t been scheduled for any hearings and has not yet found a Senate companion.