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Florida lawmaker revives libel bill criticized in GOP presidential debate

Skyler Swisher, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

ORLANDO, Fla. — A Florida Republican has introduced a scaled-back version of a bill that aims to make it easier for prominent people to sue for libel, a proposal that died earlier this year in the state Legislature after receiving bipartisan criticism.

State Rep. Alex Andrade’s new proposal seeks to change long-standing legal standards dealing with anonymous sources. Andrade’s previous bill was mentioned in the GOP presidential debate on Wednesday when Gov. Ron DeSantis and presidential rival Nikki Haley clashed over the merits of anonymous political speech.

Andrade, R-Pensacola, has said it should be easier for people whose reputations are harmed by false information to get justice. DeSantis also trumpeted that idea, holding an event in February calling for action to combat what he termed “legacy media defamation practices.”

But First Amendment advocates say the proposed changes raise constitutional issues and would chill free speech across the political spectrum and not just for traditional media outlets.

“Florida is a place where the First Amendment gets assaulted relentlessly,” said Bobby Block, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation. “It is making it easier for rich and famous people or prominent individuals … to take their critics to court.”

The bill (HB 757) would consider false statements about public figures based on anonymous sources to have been published with “actual malice.”

 

For prominent people to win a libel lawsuit, they must show that a publisher went beyond negligence and acted with actual malice, defined as “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

That legal standard was first laid out in the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan.

Andrade did not respond to a request Friday for a comment on his newest proposal. It is scaled back from his previous bill, which would have considered any statement from an anonymous source to be “presumptively false.”

The newest bill, filed on Wednesday, leaves out other provisions from his earlier proposal.

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