DeSantis backs proposed media restrictions

A Florida bill would make it easier to sue for defamation.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves to the crowd as he attends an event Friday, March 10, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Ron Johnson)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signaled his support for legislation that would make it easier to sue for defamation, saying it would help stop journalists from using anonymous sources “to smear people.”

“I think what’s happened is … corporate media outlets have relied on anonymous sources to smear people, and I just think that that’s something that is fundamentally wrong,” DeSantis said when asked about the bill at a press conference.

He downplayed concerns that the legislation, which is still working its way through the legislature, would have a chilling effect on speech, but said “it may cause some people to not want to put out things that are false.”

Under current law, public officials suing over defamation must show that the offending statement was made with malice. The bill would lower that standard and remove protections for journalists, such as not being forced to reveal sources and requiring the presumption that anonymous sources are lying. The bill would also narrow what counts as a public figure for the purposes of a defamation case.

DeSantis said the existing malice standard, established in the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan is “impossible to meet.” The new legislation would help protect “people who are considered public figures who aren’t even in office or just maybe get involved in some sort of school board meeting or something,” he said.

Free speech advocates have argued that the bill would hurt free speech and journalism that seeks to hold public figures accountable.

Bobby Block, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida-based nonprofit focused on free speech and government accountability, pointed to stories that were written to expose the sexual abuse allegations of jailed movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the Watergate scandal, and other landmark pieces of journalism that used anonymous sources.

“These things would have never come to light,” Block said.

Rep. Alex Andrade (R) introduced the bill last month. No stranger to controversy and culture war issues, Andrade, endorsed by DeSantis and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R), has also introduced legislation to ban critical race theory in higher education and has called for the removal of gender studies.

The Florida governor’s comments come as the bill was advanced by the House Judiciary Committee’s Civil Justice Subcommittee last week. The panel approved the bill 14 to 4, with all but one Democrat voting against it.

During the debate, Andrade said that the malice standard is “vague and subjective” and that his bill would help limit the subjectivity in defamation cases.

“Right now it’s the wild west of subjectiveness in defamation claims,” Andrade said. “This bill, all it does, is provide clarity and tighten up situations [where] subjectiveness might occur.”

When asked if anonymous sources would be outed in court under the bill, he said he did not know but stressed that journalists who are the subject of defamation suits should be able to show how they judged the veracity of a claim of an anonymous source at issue.

“Right now, journalists, especially journalists, cannot be compelled to even testify,” Andrade said. “If they’re the defendant in a case, they should have to participate in good faith in that case.

“Nothing in this bill says that they can be compelled to disclose the name of their anonymous source,” Andrade continued. “But if they want to rely on truth as a defense to a defamation claim … they need to at least point to whatever dark demons or other sources they relied on to make sure that that anonymous source was at least mostly true to be able to depend on that anonymous source of statement before publishing it.”

Before the vote, several public members testified on the bill, including John Harris Mauer, public policy director for Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBTQ civil rights group.

“We’re concerned for our democracy about this effort to chill free speech, punish the media, and reverse long-standing Supreme Court precedent,” Mauer said. “This bill is clearly politically motivated to stifle public discourse by instilling fear.”