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First Amendment advocates say DeSantis' media defamation stance would hurt free speech on all sides

Ron DeSantis speaking into the camera with "Truth" sign in the background
Executive Office of Gov. Ron DeSantis
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Courtesy
During a roundtable discussion in Hialeah Gardens on Tuesday, DeSantis called on the legislature to address the impacts of media defamation on the public.

On Tuesday, Gov. DeSantis called upon the legislature to adopt a measure that would make it easier to sue the press.

Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to make it easier to sue media outlets for defamation.

But Florida's First Amendment Foundationsays that would have a chilling effect on free speech.

During a roundtable discussion in Hialeah Gardens on Tuesday, DeSantis called on the legislature to address the impacts of media defamation on the public.

First Amendment Foundation

“We’ve seen over the last generation legacy media outlets increasingly divorce themselves from the truth and instead try to elevate preferred narratives and partisan activism over reporting the facts,” DeSantis said in a news release. “When the media attacks me, I have a platform to fight back. When they attack everyday citizens, these individuals don’t have the adequate recourses to fight back.

"In Florida, we want to stand up for the little guy against these massive media conglomerates.”

In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that public figures must prove a media report is untrue and that it was distributed with malicious intent in order to win defamation and libel cases.

Bobby Block, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, said any attempt to change that would hamper free speech — from the left and the right.

"That was done to protect not just reporters at the New York Times and The Washington Post, but think of satirists and humorists on the left and on the right," Block explained. "It was meant to provide a robust environment for fair comment about public people."

Block said only very public people, like celebrities and people in politics, have to meet the "malicious" intent standard.

But, if a report is true, no matter how inconvenient or damaging to someone's reputation, a media outlet can't be held liable for reporting it.

He said the Supreme Court recognized that journalists and commentators can make mistakes. To be held liable, the court said, they have to knowingly report something false.

And that applies to both liberal and conservative media.

"I would not be surprised if there were owners of conservative broadcast stations around the state that would look at this and also have heartburn because, in theory, their pundits would be subject to these same rules," Block said.

Block said any legislation on loosening defamation laws in Florida would surely be challenged since it would conflict with federal law.

I started my journalism career delivering the Toledo Blade newspaper on my bike.