House defamation bill advances to floor vote despite scathing backlash

by | Feb 21, 2024

The House Judiciary Committee advanced a defamation bill aimed at holding media more accountable for false anonymous statements, despite widespread criticism from free speech advocates and conservative voices for potentially infringing on First Amendment rights.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced a contentious defamation bill on Wednesday by a 14 to 7 margin amid vocal opposition from both conservative figures and media organizations.

The legislation, carried by Rep. Alex Andrade, seeks to amend the state’s defamation laws by introducing measures that would hold journalists and media entities more accountable for publishing false statements sourced anonymously. It also addresses the practice of “venue shopping” through an introduced amendment, where plaintiffs choose court locations they believe will offer them a favorable outcome.

Under the proposed amendments, defamation lawsuits could only be filed in the county where the defendant resides or where the alleged harm occurred. The bill additionally imposes financial penalties on plaintiffs and their attorneys who engage in filing frivolous lawsuits.

The bill’s progression through the legislature has been marked by a significant backlash. Critics, including the editorial board of the New York Post and conservative talk radio hosts, have condemned the bill as an attack on free speech. United States Congressman Byron Donalds and the National Religious Broadcasters have also expressed opposition, arising concerns over the bill’s implications for journalistic practices and the constitutional right to free speech.

This criticism extended into Wednesday morning’s committee meeting, where swaths of free speech advocacy groups appeared in opposition.

“We don’t think that creating a new cause of action for false light — which has already been struck down by the Florida Supreme Court — is in the best interest of Florida,” said Chris Stranburg, representing Americans for Prosperity. “This runs afoul of 35 years of US Supreme Court precedents … So by saying that if if a statement is false, and there was an anonymous source used, you’re creating an objective test, which would then fail to meet this precedent and will likely be struck down by the court.”

Attorneys representing local media outlets also spoke in opposition, contending that the measure is incongruent with previous tort reform efforts undertaken by state lawmakers.

“House Bill 757, even as amended, makes it easier for plaintiffs to bring and win libel cases in Florida,” said Carol Locicero, who represents both local news outlets and national publications like Newsmax. “That’s not consistent with the legislators tort reform efforts. The risk may be greatest for conservative voices.”

In response, Andrade asserted that arguments brought forth against the bill were misleading and did not adequately represent its function.

“Shocking. Media outlets and their attorneys are afraid that a bill that protects your reputation and recognizes that your reputation has value don’t want it to pass,” said Andrade. “The conclusions that were made … about whether or not this bill or anything related to this topic violates the First Amendment depend on a single case from 1964 that created from scratch a legislative policy from the bench. I look forward to having a more fully fleshed out debate on this topic.”

Having now advanced through all three committee stops, the bill moves to the House floor for a full vote.


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