Civil libertarians slam Ron DeSantis’ 'brazen and blatantly unconstitutional' war on press freedom

Civil libertarians slam Ron DeSantis’ 'brazen and blatantly unconstitutional' war on press freedom

During his four years in the White House, former President Donald Trump repeatedly attacked the mainstream media as "the enemy of the people" and dismissed any reporting he didn’t like as "fake news." And others in the MAGA movement haven’t been shy about echoing that type of rhetoric.

Kari Lake, the far-right MAGA Republican who lost to Democratic now-Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs in the 2022 midterms, described the mainstream media as "evil bastards" during a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) speech. And she vowed to be the mainstream media's "worst freaking nightmare" when she was campaigning for governor. Lake’s critics responded that her willingness to threaten journalists underscored her authoritarian mindset.

Now, another MAGA Republican, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and his GOP allies in the Florida State Legislature — including State Rep. Alex Andrade — are hoping to make it easier to sue journalists for defamation. Andrade has sponsored a bill that, according to Politico’s Matt Dixon, would "weaken state laws that have long protected journalists against defamation suits and frivolous lawsuits."

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In an article published by Politico on February 23, Dixon reports that Andrade's bill — which he has been discussing with DeSantis’ office — is "being positioned to spark a larger legal battle with the goal of eventually overturning New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limits public officials' ability to sue publishers for defamation."

Andrade, a critic of the New York Times v. Sullivan decision, told Politico, "There is a strong argument to be made that the Supreme Court overreached. This is not the government shutting down free speech. This is a private cause of action."

Handed down by Warren Court 59 years ago, Sullivan was very clear about what does and doesn’t constitute defamation. According to Sullivan, defamation must involve "actual malice" — which isn’t easy to prove. Dominion Voting Systems is trying to prove "actual malice" in its defamation lawsuits against Fox News, Newsmax TV and others who, in 2020, promoted the false, thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that Dominion’s voting equipment was used to help now-President Joe Biden steal the election from Trump.

Sullivan, a unanimous 9-0 ruling by the late Chief Justice Earl Warren and his colleagues, doesn’t offer protections for outright lies, but it offers considerable protections for edgy commentary — including the type of incendiary comments that are common at right-wing media outlets. Warren was a Republican appointee of GOP President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but his views are detested by today’s MAGA Republicans, social conservatives and far-right white evangelical Christian fundamentalists.

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Seth Stern, who serves as director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, views Andrade's bill as overtly authoritarian.

Stern told Politico, "I have never seen anything remotely like this legislation. I can't say I have seen every bill ever introduced, but I’d be quite surprised if any state legislature had seriously considered such a brazen and blatantly unconstitutional attack on speech and press freedoms…. This bill is particularly remarkable since its provisions have the vocal support of a governor and likely presidential candidate."

On Tuesday, February 7, Florida's governor held a roundtable discussion where he railed against the mainstream media and argued that it should be easier to sue publications for defamation.

Dixon notes, "Andrade’s proposal incorporates many of the elements DeSantis called for during the roundtable, including allowing plaintiffs who sue media outlets for defamation to collect attorneys' fees; adding a provision to state law specifying that comments made by anonymous sources are presumed false for the purposes of defamation lawsuits; lowering the legal threshold for a 'public figure' to successfully sue for defamation; repealing the 'journalist’s privilege' section of state law, which protects journalists from being compelled to do things like reveal the identity of sources in court."

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Read Politico’s full report at this link.

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