The GOP-backed bills to make it easier to sue the news media in Florida face opposition from conservatives, including Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Mills and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, who call the measures unconstitutional.
“This bill is encouraging the state to violate its citizens’ fundamental rights as Americans and is not only unpatriotic, but it is not representative of the free state of Florida,” Mills wrote in a letter to leaders of the Florida House and Senate last week.
But on Friday, Florida House Speaker Paul Renner said in response that the House bill,in fact, was meant to challenge established constitutional law. He said the goal was to trigger legal challenges that would result in the U.S. Supreme Court overturning established precedents on defamation laws, most notably the Times vs. Sullivan decision.
Both Senate Bill 1220, filed by state Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, and House Bill 991, filed by Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, propose sweeping changes to Florida’s libel and defamation law. If passed, the bills would automatically presume information from anonymous sources to be false and would prevent journalists from shielding the identity of sources if they are sued.
HB 991 would also expand the definition of defamation to giving “publicity” about someone that would be “highly offensive to a reasonable person,” and included language that someone can be defamed if they are accused of discriminating based on race, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, even if it’s true.
In his letter sent Thursday to Renner and state Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, Mills, a firebrand conservative from New Smyrna Beach, said he agreed with Brodeur and Andrade that journalists have “abused their constitutional protections … (to) their own personal or political agendas.”
Mills, serving his first term in Congress, gained notoriety last year for a campaign ad boasting that his company sold police the tear gas used on Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020, and he added he could help make “the liberal media … shed some real tears.”
But in his letter, Mills warned his fellow Republicans that the bills wouldn’t just affect “legacy” media outlets.
“If passed, they will stifle all media voices — whether liberal, conservative, or neutral — that your constituents have come to trust and rely on, as well as any individual who chooses to exercise their rights to freedom of speech,” Mills wrote.
He laid out his objections to the bills, including that they would “target speech based on its content,” “tilt the playing field in favor of plaintiffs” in defamation cases, and redefine “public official,” all of which he said violate current constitutional precedent.
Eliminating the use of anonymous sources, Mills added, would impact “cases involving corporate and government whistleblowers and illegal and egregious conduct by powerful individuals.”
Andrade responded to Mills on Twitter by using a clown emoji to describe Mills and calling his letter “limp-wristed.”
Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian advocacy group funded by conservative billionaire Charles Koch, has also lobbied state legislators on the bills, according to The Intercept.
A spokesperson for the group told The Intercept they want to “protect people from frivolous lawsuits targeting their speech by making it possible for judges to quickly review and dismiss bogus cases aimed at silencing opponents.”
The spokesperson added that their opposition was just on those sections “in direct opposition to the First Amendment.” If that language was changed, the group would still not support the bills but would no longer actively oppose them.
Asked about Mills’ letter on Friday, Renner acknowledged the House bill “is designed to challenge current constitutional law.”
“We’re letting the third branch of government, the judicial branch, work, and they’re going to tell us whether we’re right or wrong,” Renner said. “And they’ll tell us on that bill, whether we’re right or wrong on defamation.”
Bobby Block, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for a free press, said, “This is the first time that they have stated that so directly. … But I don’t think this is Roe v. Wade. I don’t think they have the votes in the Supreme Court on this.”
The 1964 Times v. Sullivan decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which established the current precedent for defamation, involved the Montgomery, Ala., police commissioner suing civil rights supporters for an ad that had some inaccuracies in describing the Montgomery Police’s harsh treatment of protesters. The ruling states that defamation must prove “actual malice,” which includes knowing a statement is false or reckless disregard for the truth.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who talks frequently about “the free state of Florida,” has sought to challenge Times v. Sullivan in the past. The Orlando Sentinel reported last year that a top DeSantis staffer had worked on such a proposal. DeSantis ultimately announced before the 2023 session that he wanted to target “legacy media defamation practices.”
Renner said he agrees with Mills on free speech, but added the Legislature was trying to “find the right line” on the issue.
Passidomo spokeswoman Katherine Betta said Monday that the Senate president had not yet received the letter.
Block said Renner’s comments don’t address “the devastation it’s going to wreak” if the bill passes, which he said might include a bevy of lawsuits against media of all stripes, including conservative publications and radio, as well as “incredibly high” libel insurance rates in the state.
“I don’t necessarily understand why they would do this in a year that the governor is thought likely to run for president,” Block said of DeSantis’ potential run for the 2024 GOP nomination. “Because there’s a potential of a real downside to all of this.”