Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis converted the bully pulpit into a talk show-like setting Tuesday when he took on the role of TV host by holding a live roundtable at a studio and interviewed lawyers, experts and victims of mainstream media defamation incidents that he wants to use as a basis for new legislation.
Livestreamed on Twitter and his Rumble channel, DeSantis interviewed the guests about their stories of being defamed by sloppy reporters and media outlets who, he said, have too many protections to destroy people's lives with lies.
DeSantis didn't specify exactly what he wanted to change with defamation laws, but he repeatedly talked about the use of anonymous sources in defamation cases as an area to explore. He also indicated that Tuesday's event was part of a fact-finding listening session to better understand the scope of the problem and possible solutions.
Among the guests: Nicholas Sandmann, who was 16 years old in 2019 when a run-in with liberal demonstrators during a high school trip to Washington led numerous mainstream news media outlets to defame him. Sandmann sued and settled defamation cases with some of the outlets.
"What was going on through your mind as a 16 year-old kid?" DeSantis asked against a studio backdrop that said "SPEAK TRUTH."
Sandmann told the governor he didn't even have a chance to comment to the media outlets before they picked up selectively edited video from Twitter and started to bash him.
"I found out on the bus ride back home to ... Kentucky at 3 in the morning that this was making its way through Twitter, and there were already pictures of my face photoshopped on to the lunch counter protests during the Civil Rights movement. And I was very confused because I had not even said anything," Sandmann replied.
At the center of mainstream media protections is the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case that DeSantis and his guests said has gone too far.
In an off-camera discussion, DeSantis said he wanted legislation that would make it more difficult for people — including the media – to defame people and he also acknowledged that he expected the state's law, if passed, would eventually be challenged all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a number of justices have signaled a willingness to examine the Sullivan case.
"We are interested in reforms that don't conflict with Sullivan that would help people in Florida," DeSantis said, "but then we do want some that would potentially challenge Sullivan -- not necessarily things that have already been decided, but maybe a nuance on it that would implicate it. And then they would have to raise the Sullivan defense ... that would tee up, potentially, a reevaluation" at the high court.
Asked for more specifics, DeSantis said that, "for example, we had talked about anonymous sources. So could you say 'okay, in a defamation case, a false statement of fact, that's defamatory. Relying on anonymous sources constitutes actual malice for the purpose of a limited public figure or something like that?"
DeSantis said he doesn't see the entire law being overturned.
"It doesn't serve us a purpose to say, 'we reject New York Times versus Sullivan," he said, "because we know that that's not going to work ... but I do think there'll be a number of other possible reforms that will not implicated at all."
Unlike Sandmann and some of the other cases mentioned during the roundtable, DeSantis said the defamatory media attacks on him haven't been damaging. Pointing to a widely panned and inaccurate "60 Minutes" hitjob over vaccine distribution, DeSantis said he perversely benefited from the network's unethical reporting in which it ignored contrary facts and spliced together his response to make a misleading narrative.
"For me, I couldn't show damages," he said. "It helped me. I had more sympathy. People were like 'what are they doing to him?'"
Also joining DeSantis and Sandmann on the panel were:
Dennis O’Connor: formerly the Secretary of the Board of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. He and other members of the league were victims of deceptive editing in a gun violence documentary which eventually led to the reporter having to issue a public apology to the group. Watch this video for more information.
Devin “Velvel” Freedman: founding partner at Freedman, Normand, Friedland, LLP and the attorney representing Zachary Young, a former U.S. government operative who was accused by CNN of selling black market evacuations out of Afghanistan during the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from the country. Watch this video for more information (Defamed — Zachary Young).
Elizabeth “Libby” Locke: a partner at Clare, Locke LLP. She is one of the country’s most sought-after libel lawyers and has represented Fortune 100 companies and high-profile individuals against attacks from national media and other influential publishers.
Carson Holloway: a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life, and his research focuses on American constitutionalism. He has been a visiting fellow in Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and a Visiting Fellow in American Political Thought at The Heritage Foundation. His scholarly articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Federalist, and National Review.
Michael Moynihan: co-host of the Fifth Column Podcast and a former national correspondent for Vice News with other experiences working at The Daily Beast and Newsweek. He was also a resident fellow of the free-market think tank Timbro in Sweden, where he lived and wrote articles about politics in the country, contributing to Swedish-language publications.