Creeping fascism strikes again as a Florida senator takes aim at bloggers – and the First Amendment.
Florida Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Lake Mary) wants bloggers who write about Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and other members of the Florida executive cabinet or legislature to register with the state or face fines.
Brodeur’s proposal, Senate Bill 1316: Information Dissemination, would require any blogger writing about government officials to register with the Florida Office of Legislative Services or the Commission on Ethics.
Whether the writer files with the Legislative office or the Ethics commission depends on whom the article was about.
The bill would require bloggers to register if they wrote “an article, a story, or a series of stories” about “the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, a Cabinet officer, or any member of the Legislature” and receive any compensation for the post. Once such a story is published, the writer would have 5 days to register with the state. If any further stories about the listed officials are published, the writer would then be required to file a monthly report. They would also have to disclose how much they were paid for the story. Failure to do so would result in a fine of $25 per day that the registration or report is late, up to $2500 per report. The writer also much estimate how much they will earn from the post, though the bill allows later payments to be reported on subsequent filings. The bill exempts newspapers and “similar publications.”
This potential law seems intended to intimidate writers by making bloggers register with the government. Nothing in the bill states what will be done with the information – at least as it stands now – but leaves open the question of what the government might use it for in the future. Given DeSantis’ hostility toward the press, it’s likely he would sign such a bill, and he has a history of going after those who disagree with him.
Speaking of which, Florida is also considering making it easier to sue the press for defamation. A bill introduced by State Rep. Alex Andrade would make it easier to sue news outlets for defamation. The bill is modeled on ideas DeSantis expressed at a recent conference and directly challenges the Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. vs Sullivan, a 1964 case that created the current standard for being able to successfully sue someone for defamation. It states that a public figure (or private individual seeking punitive damages) must show that a publication acted with “actual malice” – meaning that they knew the information was false and published it anyway – or “reckless disregard for the truth” to prevail. For DeSantis, this is too high of a standard.
Sullivan established a higher bar for public figures to successfully sue for defamation. Not only would the new law do away with this long-established standard, but it would also change the definition of who is a public figure. This law would exclude people who are famous because they are defending themselves against an accusation, gave an interview on a specific topic, are public employees (except for elected and appointed officials) or had an image, video, or statement go viral.
The bill assumes that if a defamatory statement is not verified or corroborated, it is evidence of actual malice on the part of the reporter and assumes that any anonymously sourced information is false by default.
Because the defamation law is intended – as stated in the bill itself – to challenge the Sullivan standard, some of its provisions may end up affecting journalism not just in Florida, but nationwide. Presumably, any challenge to the law would have to go to the US Supreme Court to overturn Sullivan, and both Gorsuch and Thomas have indicated an interest in reviewing that standard.
If these proposed laws don’t seem too bad to you, keep in mind, they can always be expanded. Just as an example, when the “Parental Rights in Education” (aka “Don’t Say Gay”) law was a bill, they offered reassurances that it would only impact students through the third grade. Already, though, an expansion of the law is being proposed that would not only extend the restrictions through 8th grade, with conditions placed on what can be taught all the way through 12th grade, but it would also prohibit anyone from referring to a teacher or student by any pronoun besides the one that corresponds to their gender at birth.
DeSantis loves to say that Florida is “Where woke goes to die,” but clearly, Florida isn’t content with just killing “woke” (whatever that’s supposed to be.) These bills show they are just as happy to go after Free Speech as well.