The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DeSantis wants ‘media accountability.’ A new bill makes suing journalists easier.

The Florida governor’s antipathy toward media has been a key part of his brand during a rise in GOP politics. Free speech advocates fear a new libel bill goes too far in codifying that attitude.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at his roundtable discussion on "legacy media defamation," which marked the start of a new legislative push to make it easier to sue for libel. (Courtesy of the Executive Office of Governor Ron DeSantis.)
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Ron DeSantis sat in an anchorman’s chair, peering at a camera as phrases such as “SPEAK TRUTH” flashed on a screen behind him.

Presiding over a setup that resembled a cable-news panel show, the governor of Florida teed up provocative video clips and welcomed guests into his mock studio for what his office called a “roundtable discussion” that was streamed on social media last month. Topic: “Legacy media defamation practices.” Guests: Plaintiffs and lawyers who had sued major media companies, including Fox News and The Washington Post.

“These companies are probably the leading purveyors of disinformation in our entire society,” DeSantis said. “There needs to be an ability for people to defend themselves.”

The governor, who is expected to challenge Donald Trump and a growing field for the 2024 GOP nomination for president, has made open antipathy toward “corporate media” a key part of his brand in his rapid ascent in conservative politics. He shuns talks with mainstream news outlets in favor of exclusive interviews with conservative platforms. His office keeps a growing catalogue of what it considers media hoaxes. And his press aides mock journalists by sharing their emails on social media.

Now, a new bill moving through the Florida Capitol appears to codify DeSantis’s combative stance toward media — and his portrayal of journalists as partisan players who lack accountability — by making it far easier to sue news organizations for defamation and win.

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DeSantis has framed the push to rethink defamation law as wanting to “stand up for the little guy against these massive media conglomerates.”

Under current case law, private citizens actually face a much lower legal threshold than prominent people when it comes to suing for defamation.

While Republican state lawmakers quickly took up his cause, publishers and free-speech advocates, including some from conservative media, warn that the bill would dramatically change how journalists do their jobs.

Bobby Block of the First Amendment Foundation called it “a death knell for American traditions of free speech.” James Schwartzel, the owner of 92.5 FOX News, a talk-radio station that carries Sean Hannity and other conservative personalities, said the bill would be “the death of conservative talk throughout the state of Florida.”

“The devastation will be severe and swift,” he wrote to lawmakers. “Republicans will lose one of their most prominent platforms to reach their base forever.”

Opponents of the bill say a provision that presumes reporting cited to anonymous sources is false could make it harder for journalists to investigate corruption and sensitive topics. They also warn that it could turn Florida into a destination for filing defamation lawsuits — and that ordinary citizens, not just media professionals, could face more lawsuits.

The bill’s author has dismissed concerns as overblown. In an interview with The Post, state Rep. Alex Andrade (R-Pensacola) argued that truthful reporting and even name-calling and satire would still be protected. But under current law, “it’s nearly impossible to bring a defamation claim,” he said — a situation he wants to change.

“What this bill will provide are opportunities to people who have been rightfully harmed by a false statement that hurt their reputation to seek justice,” Andrade said at a recent committee hearing, “and not have to spend egregiously enormous amounts of money to seek justice to prove they were defamed with actual malice.”

The bill comes as lawmakers in Florida pursue a broader DeSantis-inspired agenda. The governor, who has campaigned as a fighter against the “woke” left, is using a legislative supermajority to tackle culture-war issues, such as what can be taught in public schools and access to gender-affirming health care.

Jeremy Redfern, a DeSantis spokesman, called it “encouraging to see the legislature taking up the important topic of media accountability and joining the conversation that the governor began.” He said the governor “will consider the merits of each bill that reaches his desk in final form and make a decision at that time.”

Although Florida is known for some of the most expansive laws allowing public access to government documents and meetings, journalists say it has been getting harder to obtain records and cooperation from state agencies.

“None of this started with DeSantis, but there is absolutely an undercurrent of hostility in the state right now,” said Nate Monroe, a columnist at Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union who learned that he had been put under surveillance by a private Florida power company after he wrote critical pieces.

“The purpose of all of this,” Monroe said, is “to increase the cost and risk of doing journalism” in Florida.

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A circuit court judge in Florida recently ruled that DeSantis has executive privilege — comparable to the power invoked by U.S. presidents — to shield certain records. And a state agency ruled that groups holding events at the state Capitol must be sponsored by a state agency or lawmaker and must “align with the state agency missions.”

“It’s crazy that we have to go to the government for permission to speak about the government,” said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “Citizens are being muzzled with these actions.”

Some state lawmakers seem to view discussions of media rights and defamation in highly personal terms. At a news conference on the first day of Florida’s current legislative session, state Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) decried a political mailer that featured a doctored image of her appearing to hug President Biden.

“Across the board, … it’s like open season,” she said. “Whether it’s a private individual or an elected official, you shouldn’t just be able to say things that are totally wrong and get away with it.”

The bill appears to take aim at the high standard that the Supreme Court established nearly 60 years ago for defamation cases. That ruling, New York Times v. Sullivan, says public figures attempting to prove defamation must demonstrate that defendants knew that their statements were false or acted recklessly in making them.

Sullivan has lately drawn criticism from conservative legal activists and politicians who see the “mainstream” news media as having a liberal bias. Trump, who sued several media companies for defamation and labeled the media as the “enemy of the people,” pledged to “open up” libel laws as president, calling them “a sham and a disgrace.”

The Florida bill would narrow the definition of who qualifies as a public figure.

Although Andrade said he believes his bill operates within current free-speech protections, some supportive lawmakers have expressed hope that it could lead to the Supreme Court reconsidering its precedent.

Carol LoCicero, a longtime First Amendment lawyer in Florida, said the legislation could force a hike in libel insurance premiums for news organizations already struggling with declining revenue.

“Every time you defend a defamation suit, there’s a pot of money that’s not going to supporting reporting and hiring, and the stuff journalists should be spending their time doing,” she said.

Monroe warns that the bill’s provisions on anonymous sources could discourage whistleblowers from sharing sensitive information with journalists, creating a chilling effect on what gets reported.

“Part of this is designed to force editors and reporters to have conversations about what stories are worth pursuing,” Monroe said. “Even if this law gets thrown out on Day 1, someone’s going to have to be sued first.”

Free-speech advocates have cautioned that their GOP allies in media may quickly regret the measure.

“Much of conservative programming centers on commentary and opinion,” Block said. “Talk radio is often the most contentious of all news programs, as the personalities at the center of these shows tackle issues in purposefully provocative and colorful ways.”

State Rep. Daryl Campbell (D-Fort Lauderdale) said lawmakers had received more than 1,000 emails from constituents opposed to the bill. “You’re putting things in place where a regular individual can say anything, and somebody will claim that’s defamation and sue,” he said.

Lawmakers advanced the bill this month, and it could soon head to the floor for a vote.

LoCicero, who has practiced media law for more than 30 years, said she has never seen a piece of legislation quite like this — but doesn’t expect Florida’s version to be the nation’s last. If this bill prevails in Tallahassee, she said, “look for libel bills in a state near you.”