Home » Florida Lawmaker Wants to Make It Easier for Public Figures to Win Defamation Lawsuits
Featured News Politics United States

Florida Lawmaker Wants to Make It Easier for Public Figures to Win Defamation Lawsuits

Florida Rep. Alex Andrade is bringing back a “pared down” version of a bill that makes it easier for public figures to win defamation lawsuits.

Critics say it would upend nearly 60 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent regarding free speech and create a “chilling effect” around the use of anonymous sources.

Earlier this year, Andrade sponsored a bill that made it easier to sue for defamation, assumed anonymous sources in media reports were false, made it more costly to defend defamation suits by preventing defendants from recovering legal fees, and prevented people suing for discrimination from using a person’s religious or scientific beliefs as evidence of discrimination.

The bill died during the 2023 legislative session after pushback from free speech advocates and conservative radio hosts who said the bill would increase their legal liability.

On Wednesday, Andrade filed a new bill that lacks many of the controversial elements of the previous version but still takes aim at the use of anonymous sources when commenting on public figures, like politicians or celebrities.

The Pensacola Republican’s bill adds a presumption that anyone publishing a false statement that relied on an anonymous source acted with “actual malice,” which is a key legal hurdle for public figures to win defamation lawsuits under federal case law.

Andrade told the News Journal that nothing in the bill he brought last year, or the current bill, changes the definition of defamation requiring a statement to be false to be defamation.

“Let’s all start from the premise, that we’re not changing what is and is not defamation, and I think it would have made a lot a lot of things more clear,” Andrade said.

Andrade said he brought back this pared-down version of the bill because he believes it still has merit.

“If you’re a public figure right now, it’s almost impossible to ever get justice if you’re defamed,” Andrade said.

Bobby Block, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, said the bill creates a threat to free speech in Florida and the entire country.

“It’s bad legal precedent, and like the law that was proposed last year, it’s un-American,” Block said.

Block said the “actual malice” standard created in the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan was created in response to lawsuits being filed in an attempt to suppress speech, and Andrade’s bill undermines that.

“In my opinion, (the bill is) attempting to tilt the scale against the press and the freedom of the press,” Block said. “And that was exactly why the Supreme Court in the 1960s came down with this rule of actual malice because people were using lawsuits as an attempt to chill free speech.”

Block said the bill undermines the long tradition in America of anonymous sources being used to expose wrongdoing by public officials by “chilling” the willingness of anonymous sources to come forward.

“They have various reasons where they might be afraid to speak out,” Block said. “They would be afraid of retaliation. They would be afraid of losing their jobs, and they would like to stay in the shadows. This bill is, obviously, an attempt to stop that practice, and the fact of the matter is from the beginnings of the origins of this country, anonymous speech has been protected speech.”

Andrade said under his bill, the burden is on the public figure to prove what was said or printed is false.

“If what’s been printed is true, then that section doesn’t apply because the only time that section of the bill applies is if what’s been printed is false,” Andrade said.

He said he doesn’t believe his bill chills free speech because the Florida law banning “strategic lawsuits on public participation,” known as anti-SLAPP laws, which impose severe penalties for anyone who sues for defamation or other legal action because they disagree with what a person said.

“The bill doesn’t take away the anti-SLAPP statute,” Andrade said. “The anti-SLAPP statute is not dependent on New York Times v. Sullivan. The anti-SLAPP statute in Florida got past the early 2000s and is the same type of protection that New York Times v. Sullivan and the Supreme Court back then was trying to provide.”

Andrade’s bill also adds a provision that allows someone to sue for “false light” if content made with artificial intelligence leads someone to believe something is false about a person.

The bill also opens defamation lawsuits to any circuit court in Florida if the alleged defaming statement was published on the internet.

Andrade said the provisions surrounding artificial intelligence are aimed at bringing back “false light” lawsuits that the Florida Supreme Court struck down because it was too similar to a defamation lawsuit.

Block said there are legitimate concerns with AI being used to create fake content, but there are also legitimate uses of AI, such as the use in satire and comedy.

“It opens up a can of worms,” Block said. “And I have to say that while the governor may frequently say that Florida is the place where wokeness comes to die, it increasingly seems to be the place where the First Amendment gets mauled.”

Source: PNJ