DeSantis wants to protect public officials from press scrutiny
Historic City News received a Tuesday press release from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ office, calling on the legislature to adopt a bill making it easier to sue the press. The release followed a roundtable discussion with the governor and media critics in Hialeah Gardens.
The First Amendment Foundation of Florida circulated a call to action because it views, with alarm, any movement of legislation that would reduce legal protections for speech about government officials and public figures.
“We are concerned that Florida is attempting to turn back the clock on legally protected free speech that criticizes public figures and elected officials,” said First Amendment Foundation Executive Director Bobby Block. “We urge our elected officials to refrain from attempting to reverse 50 years of legal precedent that has served our democracy well and provided for robust national discussions.”
The focus for concern is the 1964 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan U.S. Supreme Court decision and subsequent related cases, in which the court ruled that public officials cannot get legal damages from publications that report false information unless it was done with “actual malice.” That means the speaker, either a member of the press or another citizen, must have known statements were false or entertained serious doubts about whether they were publishing truthful information.
Critics of the actual malice standard claim that it makes it impossible for ordinary people to sue the media when there are genuine cases of defamation. The actual malice standard, however, only applies to public officials and public figures, not to private persons suing for defamation.
“We want the public and our legislators to clearly understand the law in question,” said block. “New York Times Co. v. Sullivan recognizes federal constitutional protections for free speech and press based on the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include sometimes unpleasant attacks on government and public officials.”
These rights are guaranteed to the citizens of every state, including Florida, through its constitution. They are designed to strike a delicate balance between fair comments and mistakes that happen to ensure vibrant public discourse. As a result, the actual malice standard does not apply to ordinary people but to only public officials and public figures.
The First Amendment Foundation is a non-profit organization created in 1985 to safeguard free speech, free press, and open government in Florida from being undermined or diluted during changing times. Our purpose is to protect and advance the public’s constitutional right to open government and access to public records for an informed citizenry and strong democracy. Please support our mission with a donation at FloridaFAF.org