In an editorial, the New York Times says:
A homeowner gets angry at a county commission over a zoning dispute and writes a Facebook post accusing a local buildings official of being in the pocket of developers.
A right-wing broadcaster criticizing border policies accuses the secretary of homeland security of being a traitor.
A parent upset about the removal of a gay-themed book from library shelves goes to a school board meeting and calls the board chair a bigot and a homophobe.
All three are examples of Americans engaging in clamorous but perfectly legal speech about public figures that is broadly protected by the Constitution. The Supreme Court, in a case that dates back nearly 60 years, ruled that even if that speech might be damaging or include errors, it should generally be protected against claims of libel and slander. All three would lose that protection — and be subject to ruinous defamation lawsuits — under a bill that is moving through the Florida House and is based on longstanding goals of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The bill represents a dangerous threat to free expression in the United States, not only for the news media, but for all Americans, whatever their political beliefs. There’s still time for Florida lawmakers to reject this crude pandering and ensure that their constituents retain the right to free speech.
“This isn’t just a press issue,” said Bobby Block, executive director of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. “This is a death-to-public-discourse bill. Everyone, even conservatives, would have to second-guess themselves whenever they open their mouths to speak or sit in front of a keyboard.”
The bill is an explicit effort to eviscerate a 1964 Supreme Court decision, The New York Times Company v. Sullivan. This bulwark of First Amendment law requires public figures to prove a news organization engaged in what the court called “actual malice” to win a defamation case. By preventing lawsuits based on unintentional mistakes, the decision freed news organizations to pursue vigorous reporting about public officials without fear of paying damages. The decision has even been applied by lower courts to bloggers and other speakers who make allegations about public figures.
Many conservatives, including Mr. DeSantis, have long chafed at the freedom that this decision gives to a news industry they consider to be too liberal. The new bill embodies that antagonism. It would sharply limit the definition of public figures, eliminating public employees like police officers from the category, even if they become public figures because of their actions.
It would change the definition of actual malice to include any allegation that is “inherently improbable” — an impossibly vague standard — or that is based on what it calls an “unverified” statement by an anonymous source. In fact, it says that all anonymous statements, a crucial tool for investigative reporting, are “presumptively false” for the purposes of a defamation case. Anonymous sources were the basis for much of The Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate and The Times’s exposure of the Bush administration’s domestic eavesdropping program in 2005, among many other examples of journalism with significant impact.
Under the bill, a public figure would no longer need to show actual malice to win a defamation case if the allegation against the figure wasn’t related to the reason for the person’s public status. So if a person is publicly known for being elected president or governor, and a news organization publishes an investigation about that person’s private or business life unrelated to elected office, that report would not get the special liability protection provided by the Sullivan decision.
The bill goes much further than this attempt to hobble the press. It makes it clear that the new defamation rules would also apply to any single “utterance on the internet,” which could mean a tweet or a Facebook post written by anyone, or “any one presentation to an audience,” which could include statements made at school board hearings and other public meetings.
In a direct attack on a key aspect of free expression, it says that whenever someone is accused of discriminating against others on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation, that accusation is automatically considered enough to sue for defamation. Any person accused of bigotry based on sexual orientation or gender identity could file a defamation lawsuit and be virtually guaranteed of winning by saying the discrimination was based on personal religious or scientific beliefs. The penalty for calling someone a bigot would be a minimum of $35,000. [Continue reading…]
Florida legislators have proposed a spate of new laws that would reshape K-12 and higher education in the state, from requiring teachers to use pronouns matching children’s sex as assigned at birth to establishing a universal school choice voucher program.
The half-dozen bills, filed by a cast of GOP state representatives and senators, come shortly before the launch of Florida’s legislative session Tuesday. Other proposals in the mix include eliminating college majors in gender studies, nixing diversity efforts at universities and job protections for tenured faculty, strengthening parents’ ability to veto K-12 class materials and extending a ban on teaching about gender and sexuality — from third grade up to eighth grade.
The legislation has already drawn protest from Democratic politicians, education associations, free speech groups and LGBTQ advocates, who say the bills will restrict educators’ ability to instruct children honestly, harm transgender and nonbinary students and strip funding from public schools. [Continue reading…]