With defamation bill, DeSantis attacks free speech by the media and keeps Floridians in the dark | Opinion

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In the “free state of Florida,” Gov. DeSantis and Republican legislators want to gut free speech.

That kind of blatant hypocrisy — you’re free to do what you want as long as I agree with it — has been nearly normalized, first by Donald Trump (the self-proclaimed law-and-order president who incited the attack on the U.S. Capitol) and now by DeSantis in Florida, who has made hypocrisy a central feature of his administration.

The proposal being considered by the state Legislature would stifle freedom of speech in Florida by attacking defamation laws. But it wouldn’t harm just the faceless “legacy media” that the governor loves to hate. It would also have a chilling effect on individuals and, yes, even conservative media.

How long will it be before Republicans realize they are like the frog immersed in the slowly heating pot — about to be boiled to death along with the rest of us?

Proponents for the bill being considered, House Bill 991, say they are standing up for the “little guy.” They say the law targets false information that destroys a person’s reputation. But that’s just cover. This is really an attempt to stop Floridians of all kinds from being able to criticize the government.

Path to authoritarianism

If you don’t like what the media or the people are saying about you, muzzle them. That is, as so many South Floridians can attest, one more step on the path to an authoritarian government.

The bill is still going through committees, and there’s a Senate version that slightly differs. But the thrust of the idea here is to make it easier to sue media outlets for allegations of defamation.

It would do things like expand definitions of defamation, allow lawsuits to be filed anywhere in the state and narrow the definition of a public figure by excluding government employees who are not appointed by public officials.

It would also strip legal protections from reporters when it comes to disclosing the sources of information, including anonymous sources, and it would presume that information provided by an anonymous source is false, with no exception for whistle-blowers. That part alone should send chills down the spine of anyone who values democracy.

The change in law would encourage lawsuits that go after media organizations financially, by allowing someone who wins a lawsuit to collect attorney’s fees and costs from the losing news organization. Right now, both sides pay for their own legal fees and costs, which helps provide a check on frivolous suits.

There’s more, including a provision where a judge or jury could “infer actual malice” in a libel case in some instances.

It’s all aimed at undercutting a 1964 legal decision, the New York Times v. Sullivan Supreme Court case, that shielded news outlets from libel judgments unless they published with “actual malice” — knowing the statement was false or acting with “reckless disregard” for the truth.

Because of the clear-cut constitutional questions, the legislation could eventually wind up at the U.S. Supreme Court, where two justices have indicated they might consider revisiting libel law and press protections.

But there’s no high-minded principle here that DeSantis is advocating for. No, this is political strategy, through and through, aimed at getting him what he craves: a Supreme Court battle to showcase him as a fighter and a leg up in the fight for the White House.

He started stirring up grievances last month. In the run-up to the push for the legislation, DeSantis held a livestreamed roundtable discussion in Hialeah — in an odd, talk-show format — to grouse about “legacy media defamation practices” and “drive-by media” that “will basically smear somebody” without consequence.

It’s a vintage Trump move, filtered through the brain of a Harvard-trained lawyer. Take a vague sense of discontent and reframe it as an urgent problem that he alone (first Trump, now DeSantis) can fix.

It doesn’t even matter if the issue gets to the Supreme Court, not really — because the fight is the thing.

Too often, perception is reality when voters cast ballots. By launching fights against “woke” and drag queens and pronouns and diversity goals and “indoctrination” and local government control and masks and cruise ships and Disney and — apparently — Ukraine, to name a few, DeSantis is casting himself as a warrior. He’s also concentrating power in his hands, as authoritarians do.

Don’t bet on this remaining solely a Florida problem, either. The state’s “Don’t say gay” law and bans on critical race theory have spread beyond Florida’s borders. If DeSantis ends up making a credible bid for the presidency, the whole country could be contending with an attack on citizens’ rights to speak freely and without fear. And the Sunshine State would be the dimming beacon that leads the way.