TALLAHASSEE, FL — The Civil Justice Subcommittee voted Thursday to advance House Bill 757 (HB 757), which would make it easier for public officials to bring defamation lawsuits for damages against their critics. This vague government censorship bill would undermine decades of Supreme Court precedent on defamation lawsuits and would chill the speech of individuals and entities that are critical of public officials.
The ACLU of Florida opposes this bill and its companion bill Senate Bill 1780 (SB 1780).
Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel at the ACLU of Florida, responded with the following:
“This broadly worded bill would chill the speech of the media as well as the general public by making it easier for those in power to bring defamation lawsuits against their critics. Among other things, it expands the tort of defamation to include a single utterance on the internet and creates a rebuttable presumption of actual malice if the published information is false and the source relied upon is not revealed. Additionally, it expands the choices of venue in which a defamation plaintiff may bring suit and allows suits to be brought in any county in the state if the alleged defamation was on the internet.
“This bill targets longstanding First Amendment protections outlined in the Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan. The Supreme Court recognized the need to protect our ‘profound’ national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,’ and established a demanding standard for public figures to win defamation cases against the media and the public. This bill seeks to undo those protections and undermine decades of Supreme Court precedent by infringing upon the free speech rights of those who criticize or comment on public figures and speak out on matters of public importance.
“Freedom of speech and a free press are the hallmarks of a healthy democracy. HB 757 threatens both these freedoms by weakening laws that have long protected journalists and citizens alike from frivolous lawsuits.”