TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — One of the most controversial bills to move through the Florida Legislature this session is drawing fire from across the political spectrum, with both liberals and conservatives arguing that it threatens press freedom. But Rep. Alex Andrade – the architect of House Bill 991 – says that these fears are completely unfounded.
The bill – entitled “Defamation, False Light, and Unauthorized Publication of Name or Likenesses” – will make it easier to sue for defamation. According to its critics, the bill effectively removes the protection for journalists to refuse to reveal their sources and from being forced to testify, should they be sued under the new law – since it contains a presumption that information from anonymous sources is false.
Concern has been voiced that the bill would make it harder for journalists to investigate public corruption and misconduct, since it narrows the definition of who is a public figure. The way the bill is written, it excludes government employees who have not been directly appointed by an elected official from that status.
“A BLUNT INSTRUMENT”
On March 14, the House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted 14-4 to advance the bill. The Florida Standard spoke with Bobby Block, a veteran investigative journalist and managing editor of Florida Today who was recently appointed executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.
“I understand the idea behind the bill, but as it is written it’s a blunt instrument. Anytime someone sits down in front of a keyboard, write something and post – you’re going to have to be very careful. You might even need a lawyer to check what you say or write,” Block says.
“Rep. Andrade claims that ‘as long as you’re telling the truth, you’re okay’ – but anyone who’s been party to a court case knows that proving the truth is not always easy,” Block notes.
One aspect of the bill that worries Bobby Block is that it introduces what is called tort of false light.
“Let’s say that I’m writing an article about The Florida Standard, and everything in the story is true. But if you argue that the story still somehow portrays you in a negative light, you can sue me for defamation based on a speculation of intent. This is really hard to defend against,” Block says.
“FREE SPEECH IS MESSY”
“What’s really frustrating is that there are a lot of conservative and Christian broadcast stations that have been in contact with me. They’re afraid how this bill would affect them, but they are too scared to speak out in public about it since they don’t want to be seen as being disloyal to the governor,” he explains.
“Complaining about the press is as old as the Republic itself,” Block says. “Think about the Federalist Papers. The Founders didn’t write the First Amendment to reflect that we should have an ‘accurate’ press, or a ‘kind and compassionate’ press,” he explains – highlighting the fact that free speech is messy, but it is at the same time the cornerstone of freedom and liberty. “I don’t want to see anyone’s voices marginalized. Not conservative voices, not liberal voices,” Block emphasizes.
CRITICISM FROM CONSERVATIVES AND LIBERALS
It is rare that organizations across the political spectrum come out in agreement to criticize proposed legislation.
The ACLU writes that HB 991 “weakens state laws that have long protected journalists against frivolous lawsuits. The bill also requires journalists reveal their sources or face liability when accused of defamation … This brazen and blatant attack on the press is intentionally designed to chill, silence and punish the media for doing their job.”
Similarly, the Freedom of the Press Foundation has made an appeal to conservatives to reject the bill.
“The Florida bill represents an abandonment of fundamental principles held dear not only by conservatives but by all Americans. Conservatives who are intentionally defamed by the media already have adequate recourse,” writes Seth Stern, the organization’s director of advocacy.
“PEOPLE ARE ALLOWED TO BE JERKS”
But Rep. Alex Andrade is confident that he’s on solid ground with HB 991.
“This bill is designed to fix a two-tiered justice system that we have in Florida right now. Under current laws, some people can never seek justice for defamation and journalists have been reporting falsehoods about public figures for far too long,” Rep. Andrade says.
He’s speaking from personal experience, stating that he was the target of a media campaign that printed blatant lies about him for several years.
“As Republican politicians, we are routinely called ‘murderers,’ ‘homophobes,’ ‘racists,’ ‘Nazis’ and so on. But that’s just name calling. People are allowed to be jerks – that’s about opinion, and the bill doesn’t cover that,” Andrade says.
MAKING UP “FACTS”
The difference – and this is what his bill intends to target – is when someone makes up statements to support such positions and call them ‘facts’, Rep. Andrade tells The Florida Standard.
He says that HB 991 would not affect traditional or investigative journalism – only use of the media with malicious or negligent intent.
“If an anonymous source comes to a journalist, and the journalist publishes defamatory information about someone as a fact without properly checking other sources – that’s what this law addresses,” Andrade explains. “If you only have a single source, you have to presume that it’s false until you confirm it.”
“Journalists and editors are human beings, and they are just as capable of abusing their power and platform as anyone else,” Andrade concludes, adding that he thinks the current precedent, New York Times v. Sullivan, in combination with an increased politicization of the media has taken things too far off course.
The precedential case requires “actual malice” in order to meet the requirements of defamation – whereas under HB 991, it only requires a plaintiff to show that the defendant acted unreasonably.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up the companion bill to HB 991, designated Senate Bill 1220, today at 2:30 pm.