Don’t Let Press Freedom Die in the ‘Sunshine State,’ or Anywhere Else
Amid his culture war campaign against “woke” liberals, critical race theory and other bugaboos of the political right, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken his ongoing culture war to an old, reliable political enemy, the media.
With a defamation bill working its way through the state’s legislature, DeSantis is trying to put some legal teeth in his pitch.
As he is expected to challenge Donald Trump and others for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, the governor is backing a bill in his state’s Republican-dominated legislature to make it much easier for public figures to sue news outlets for defamation — and win.
He gave the world a preview last month with a contrived “roundtable discussion” in a mock television studio livestreamed on social media under the topic “Legacy media defamation practices.” His guests were plaintiffs and lawyers who had sued major media companies, including Fox News and The Washington Post.
DeSantis called major media companies “probably the leading purveyors of disinformation in our entire society,” adding, “There needs to be an ability for people to defend themselves.”
Of course, that ability already exists. But that’s not good enough for DeSantis.
The governor has taken on New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark 1964 Supreme Court case that said public officials could not successfully sue for libel or defamation without proving that the false statements made against them were made with “actual malice,” meaning with knowledge that the statements were false or made with reckless disregard for whether or not they were false.
Florida state Rep. Alex Andrade, the bill’s author, argues that the Supreme Court’s “actual malice” standard is too high, claiming it is not a case of government shutting down free speech, which would be unconstitutional, but a “private cause of action.”
Unfortunately, two justices on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have already expressed a willingness to “revisit” or overturn Sullivan if the opportunity comes up. It could, if the Florida bill is enacted, although the court has bypassed such opportunities in the past.
After the court overruled Roe v. Wade, following a half-century of seemingly settled law, anything can happen.
(c) 2023 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.