TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — A new bill that would downgrade journalist privilege and expand the strength of defamation actions was met with serious aversion from lawyers, former representatives and Democratic senators – though that mattered little in its passing of the Committee on Judiciary.
Introduced by Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Seminole), SB 1220 would facilitate a defamation win, making it easier to sue for libel or slander. The bill would similarly require journalists to disclose their confidential sources in a defamation case, jeopardizing their journalistic privilege.
“While you have a right to publish, you also have a responsibility to try and get it right,” Sen. Brodeur stated, “When you knowingly publish false statements and cannot corroborate them, you will get into a defamation situation.”
“THIS WILL BE THE DEATH OF CONSERVATIVE TALK”
Constitutional issues were quickly raised among speakers, referencing the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan. The ruling protects public officials and journalists from defamation cases, unless actual malice is present. This includes knowingly or negligently publishing falsehoods.
A member of the ACLU of Florida voiced his concern, stating: “This bill targets New York Times v. Sullivan. This legislature should not empower abuse of the judicial process to deny others their right to speak on matters of public importance.”
“This brazen and blatant attack on the First Amendment is intentionally designed to chill, silence, and punish those who criticize public officials and their powerful allies,” he concluded.
Former Florida House Representative Dick Batchelor concurred with the ACLU: “The legislature cannot pass any laws that infringe upon your right to free speech or free press. This is a slippery slope.” He continued: “I don‘t think the public wants the state to use its police powers to basically take away their First Amendment rights. In my opinion, this bill does that.”
A series of other speakers echoed these statements, with the Executive Director of the First Amendment Foundation warning that this bill will “silence conservative media.” He then quoted James Schwartzel of 92.5 Fox News, who stated that this legislation “will be the death of conservative talk throughout the state of Florida. Republicans will lose one of their most prominent platforms to reach their base, forever.”
“THE JOURNALISM 101 BILL”
Sen. Brodeur responded, stating that “New York Times v. Sullivan has effectively made it impossible to bring a defamation claim, even when somebody had acted negligently. This bill attempts to put some guardrails on that.”
He continued, “If what journalists printed is true, then everyone is fine. This bill has been called in other places, ‘The Journalism 101 Bill’. If it’s factual, print whatever you want!”
SB 1220 has two companion bills, HB 991 and HB 951, lending higher credibility to the legislation’s passing of the 2023 session. After passing the Committee on Judiciary, it heads next to the Rules Committee.
The Florida Standard has previously reported on the companion bill HB 991.