Florida Defamation Bill Sparks Nationwide Debate Over Media Freedom

Conservative groups and activists nationwide are expressing opposition to a bill pending before the Florida House, which aims to facilitate lawsuits against journalists and media outlets for defamation.

At the heart of Florida House Bill 757, introduced by state Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, is a provision that would ease the criteria for defamation suits. It proposes a legal presumption that any news or media organization citing an anonymous source in a story acted with “actual malice.”

“Actual malice” has been the defamation standard set by the Supreme Court since 1965, established in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. This standard dictates that public officials, later expanded to include public figures, cannot claim damages for allegedly defamatory falsehoods without demonstrating that the statement was made with actual malice, meaning with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for its truthfulness.

Andrade defended this contentious aspect of the legislation before the Florida House Civil Justice Subcommittee in January, sparking concern among conservatives, free speech advocates, and journalists alike.

“There’s not a single journalist who would say, ‘Yes, I’ve got a valid argument, valid circumstance, where I relied on a single anonymous source before publishing something that was ultimately false and harmed someone’s reputation,'” he argued.

While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has advocated for looser defamation laws as part of his second-term agenda, suggesting in February 2023 that he aimed to facilitate suing media companies, conservative-leaning broadcasters in the state and their supporters across the U.S. worry about the potential impact of the proposed legislation on the media landscape.

“Signing this into law will destroy conservative media in this state,” warned Trey Radel, a conservative radio host in Florida, in an interview with Fox News.

Radel’s concerns were echoed by the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), a Washington, D.C.-based association advocating for Christian voices in electronic and digital media. NRB’s general counsel penned a letter to Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, urging him to withdraw the bill from consideration.

“While the bill’s authors may have well-meaning intentions, the practical impact of the legislation will result in a cottage industry of well-funded trial lawyers weaponizing the libel law’s provisions to silence voices their funders disagree with,” wrote Michael Farris, counsel for NRB.

Even allies of former President Donald Trump, such as longtime adviser Stephen Miller, have campaigned against the proposed bill, highlighting concerns about its potential consequences. Miller warned of leftist plaintiff lawyers “bankrupting every prominent conservative based in Florida” if the state lowers the standard for defamation.

If Florida passes the proposed law to lower the standard for defamation, expect leftist plaintiffs lawyers to spend the next generation bankrupting every prominent conservative based in Florida,” Miller wrote on X, formerly Twitter.