March 16, 2023

SILENCED: Florida bill would severely limit criticism of government

SILENCED: Florida bill would severely limit criticism of government

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Under Governor Ron DeSantis, the Florida legislature seeks to edit the Bill of Rights, taking away the right of the press to criticize the government.

A newly-proposed piece of legislation, Florida HB 991 submitted by Republican State Representative Alex Andrade would rip that freedom from citizens and the press, by reframing certain criticisms as defamation, particularly if they come from anonymous sources.

In fact, it deems an allegation malicious in the event that it comes from “an unverified anonymous report.”

The bill specifically addresses allegations of discrimination, and protects against the use of one’s openly stated beliefs about sexuality or gender and sex and the intersection thereof — or, in Andrade’s words, one’s “scientific beliefs” — as supporting evidence for such discrimination.

For example, if a journalist accurately described DeSantis’ recent efforts to keep information about, and support for, LGBTQ issues out of schools as “discriminatory,” under this bill, his open statements against that community would not be deemed protection against a defamation ruling.

The bill even elevates such allegations to a separate level, naming them specifically and protecting public figures against such statements. It reads:

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“An allegation that the plaintiff has discriminated against another person or group because of their race, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity constitutes defamation per se.”

Fordham University Adjunct Professor of Law Matthew Schafer says he’s never seen anything like this in ten years of practicing First Amendment law, and warns that if legislation like this is allowed to pass, the government will be able to use the threat of libel to control the public dialogue. (You’ll see some of his tweets about this bill below.)

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is also speaking up about this bill and its predecessor, HB951, warning of the risk to anonymous sources and investigative journalists:

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By presuming anonymous sources are lying, the law would kneecap investigative journalism. And by awarding costs and attorney’s fees to successful plaintiffs, the law would effectively dismantle Florida’s anti-SLAPP law, incentivizing meritless defamation claims and dissuading lawyers from representing defendants who can’t afford counsel.

It’s particularly interesting timing for a Florida politician to bring a bill that addresses anti-LGBTQ discrimination and makes calling it out a potential act of defamation, as his state works to limit the safety and freedom of that same community.

If the legislation were to prevail, it could prove a timely shield for a governor and potential presidential candidate who has made himself the avatar of anti-LGBTQ legislation.

The bill’s full text is available here.

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