On Tuesday, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) considered pushing legislation that would have rolled back a critical First Amendment protection for journalists — with an eye toward getting the Supreme Court to undo a landmark ruling that limited when reporters can be sued by public officials.
“The idea didn’t make the 2022 legislative session’s agenda. A bill was never filed, according to Florida’s First Amendment Foundation,” reported Skyler Swisher. “But public records show Stephanie Kopelousos, DeSantis’ legislative affairs director, shared a draft proposal and briefing document just before lawmakers kicked off their annual session on Jan. 11. Those documents targeted New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a 1964 landmark Supreme Court decision that made it extremely difficult for public officials to win a libel case.”
“The draft bill proposes considering ‘a failure to validate or corroborate the alleged defamatory statement’ as evidence of actual malice in defamation cases, a lower standard than ‘reckless disregard’ for the truth,” said the report. “It revises the definition of a ‘public figure’ to exclude people whose notoriety arises solely from defending themselves publicly against accusations; granting an interview on a specific topic; public employment other than elected or appointment by an elected official; or a video, image or statement uploaded on the internet that has reached a broad audience.”
According to the report, the ultimate goal of the legislation was to get the Supreme Court to overturn that decision, allowing states to enact their own standards for when reporters can be sued for libel — the draft singled out Sullivan as “a dramatic departure from the original understanding of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
Prior to the Sullivan ruling, Southern states in particular used libel laws to terrorize and harass journalists attempting to cover the injustices of Jim Crow laws.
Former President Donald Trump, who used litigation against reporters and authors frequently as a businessman, constantly complained about the protections given to the press covering him as a politician and advocated for “opening up” libel laws — a concept he never fully explained, but which was broadly interpreted to mean making it easier for politicians to sue the press.