Metro Weekly

What You Need To Know About Florida’s Defamation Bill

If passed, the law would allow Floridians to sue anyone for defamation if they're accused of anti-LGBTQ speech or actions.

Florida State Senator Jason Brodeur - Photo: Florida House of Representatives
Florida State Senator Jason Brodeur – Photo: Florida House of Representatives

A Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill that would make it easier for Floridians to sue others for making accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia.

Introduced by State Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford), the bill asserts that claiming someone has discriminated against another person or group because of their identity will be considered “defamation per se” — meaning the accuser could find themselves facing costly legal bills for simply expressing their opinion.

The bill does not appear to address what happens if the alleged discrimination is a matter of fact or public record — rather, just making an accusation of discriminatory behavior appears to be enough to land them in trouble legally.

Under the bill:

  • Any statement alleging discrimination in print, on television, or on social media — either made directly by the person or by a reporter quoting a source — can be cause for bringing a lawsuit. 
  • When the accusation is made on radio or television, a lawsuit against the accuser may be filed in any county where the material was accessed. For accusations made online, a lawsuit may be filed in any of Florida’s 67 counties.
  • A person accused of anti-LGBTQ discrimination may sue their accuser for defamation.
  • When defending themselves in court, the person being sued for defamation may not point to the accused’s prior public statements expressing anti-LGBTQ animus if those statements are based on the accused’s personal religious of scientific beliefs.
  • Any person found guilty of “defamation per se” can be fined at least $35,000 per incident.

Under current defamation and libel laws, a subject must prove that a speaker or journalist acted with “actual malice.”

This typically makes it harder for public figures, such as celebrities, to sue for defamation or libel, as they must prove the person they are suing either knew the information wasn’t true or demonstrated “reckless disregard” for its falsity.

But now those in the public eye who find themselves accused of discrimination have nothing to fear — because the bill redefines what constitutes a “public figure.”

The bill also eliminates the requirement that a person accused of discrimination prove their accuser acted with “actual malice” in cases where “the allegation does not relate to the reason for his or her public status.”

Essentially, it means that it’s more likely that anyone making an accusation alleging discrimination will be found guilty and fined when the case goes to court.

As reported by The New Republic, a person may not be considered a “public figure,” even in a limited context, if their fame or notoriety stems from:

  • Defending themselves publicly against accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia.
  • Granting an interview where they expressed views alleged to be discriminatory.
  • Serving as a public employee or official in a non-elective office.
  • Posting a video, image, or statement to the Internet for consumption by, or widespread dissemination to, a large audience.

For example, if the bill becomes law, a podcaster who rants about gay marriage and calls LGBTQ people “diseased,” “perverse,” or makes other disparaging remarks could sue any person or entity accusing them of homophobic rhetoric.

They could also potentially sue any journalist or news source who reports on or quotes another person’s comments or assertions relating to their remarks. 

To use another example, the viral videos that have proliferated on the Internet that purport to show so-called “Karens” or “Kevins” engaging in unhinged or unfiltered rants regarding race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or other characteristics (often in a public place or during disputes over establishment’s policies) could be grounds for a lawsuit.

Depending on how the video is labeled and promoted online, the “Karen/Kevin” could sue the person who uploads the video for implying they are bigoted or engaging in discriminatory rhetoric or behavior. They could even sue individuals who publicly comment or draw conclusions about a person’s intent based on the video. And they could sue any journalist or media outlet that reports on the controversy, even when simply quoting others.

Some critics of the proposed bill argue that such provisions will effectively chill any free speech — even a statement of personal opinion — related to allegations of discriminatory behavior. 

Journalists would have no First Amendment protections under the law and would likely have to stop relying on anonymous or unnamed sources, potentially restricting their ability to do their jobs. Why? Because the proposed bill declares that any statement from an anonymous source is presumptively considered to be false or untrue.

If a journalist refuses to identify the source of a defamatory statement, a plaintiff only needs to prove the journalist “acted negligently” in publishing the statement.

With a lack of such protections, journalists could potentially be intimidated or coerced into not reporting on stories where racist or anti-LGBTQ discrimination, threats of violence, or harassment — and perhaps even incidents involving physical violence — are alleged, due to fear of legal action.

Depending on how broadly the law is interpreted by prosecuting attorneys and judges, it could potentially quell certain types of public criticism — which would normally be protected — that characterizes executive or legislative actions by elected officials as discriminatory.

As reported by The New Republic, Brodeur has previously sought to restrict the free speech of government critics.

Last year, he introduced a similar anti-defamation bill, which failed to pass the full Senate. He also introduced a bill requiring paid bloggers who write about elected officials to register with the state, potentially subjecting journalists to increased surveillance.

While there are questions about the possible unconstitutionality of this year’s anti-defamation bill, it is possible that the measure could become law — at least temporarily. Based on Florida Republicans’ recent party-line votes in favor of anti-LGBTQ legislation, it is possible that the bill could pass simply due to its provisions regarding accusations of homophobia or transphobia.

“More attempts to chill free speech in the ‘free’ State of Florida,” State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) wrote on the social media platform X, commenting on a thread from transgender journalist Erin Reed detailing the proposed law’s provisions.

“This would eviscerate the ability of any person to defend themselves against a defamation suit under this law,” Reed wrote of the bill on her “Erin in the Morning Substack. “A person could not call, for instance, a fiercely anti-gay or anti-trans pastor transphobic. The pastor would be able to sue their accusers for $35,000 and their accusers could not use the pastor’s ‘religious expression or beliefs’ to prove that the pastor is transphobic or homophobic.

“The bill would tremendously chill speech in Florida,” Reed added. “The bill applies to print, television, and even online posts, meaning that even posting on social media that someone is transphobic or homophobic could land one in trouble.”

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