Ron DeSantis’ Media Crackdown Raises Free Speech Alarms

  • Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been accused of attempting to create an anti-press freedom culture in his state.
  • Proposed bills would weaken anti-SLAPP laws, make anonymous sources less credible, and require bloggers to register with the state.
  • Critics have told Newsweek that such legislation would “chill, silence and punish those who criticize public officials and their powerful allies.”
  • DeSantis, however, says he wants to “stand up for the little guy against these massive media conglomerates.”
  • The governor has yet to confirm whether he will sign the bills into law, but if they are passed, it could trigger a Supreme Court case.

Ron DeSantis has been accused of seeking to turn his state into a “petri dish” of “anti-press freedom culture,” after bills that critics say could undermine media freedom were introduced to the state legislature.

Proposed legislation would make it significantly easier for publications to be sued for defamation, treat anonymous sources as “presumptively false” and require the registration of bloggers who make money writing about elected officials.

Polling indicates DeSantis is the most credible threat to Donald Trump‘s hope of securing the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination. The Florida governor has already been accused of threatening academic freedom with his “Stop WOKE” law, which makes it illegal for schools to “indoctrinate” students into believing that anyone “is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex.”

The Legal Defense Fund, along with others, is challenging the law, saying it is “unconstitutional and discriminatory,” though its supporters insist only proponents of critical race theory will be affected.

Ron DeSantis' Media Crackdown Raises Free Speech
A Newsweek photo illustration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Critics have accused the Republican of undermining press freedom in Florida, as contentious bills make their way through the state legislature.
Newsweek; Source photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Two Bills, Two Controversies

Two other new pieces of legislation have attracted particular controversy over their impact on press freedom. Republican Representative Alex Andrade introduced the ‘HB 991: Defamation, False Light, and Unauthorized Publication of Name or Likenesses’ bill, whilst his Senate colleague Jason Brodeur tabled SB 1316, a bill aimed at “Information Dissemination.”

Under HB 991, Florida’s anti-SLAPP laws, which are designed to stop wealthy groups and individuals using the threat of legal action to censor publications, would be wound back, whilst anonymous sources would have a greatly reduced legal standing. Crucially the requirement to demonstrate “actual malice” when suing a publication, as established by the 1964 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan ruling, would be watered down, potentially leading to another Supreme Court case which could change the law across the entire United States.

This legislation has been favorably received by DeSantis, though he hasn’t confirmed whether he would sign it into law if it passes the state legislature.

Jeremy T. Redfern, DeSantis’ deputy press secretary, told Newsweek: “It is encouraging to see the legislature taking up these important topics and joining the conversations that the governor began on media accountability and counteracting big tech abuses.”

Ron DeSantis promoting his book
Ron DeSantis speaking during an event spotlighting his newly released book, “The Courage To Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint For America’s Revival” at the Orange County Choppers Road House & Museum on March 8, 2023 in Pinellas Park, Florida.
Joe Raedle/GETTY

Redfern directed Newsweek to a roundtable discussion hosted by DeSantis in February, which discussed “the damaging impacts of defamation from the legacy media.”

DeSantis said: “We’ve seen over the last generation legacy media outlets increasingly divorce themselves from the truth and instead try to elevate preferred narratives and partisan activism over reporting the facts.

“When the media attacks me, I have a platform to fight back. When they attack everyday citizens, these individuals don’t have the adequate recourses to fight back. In Florida, we want to stand up for the little guy against these massive media conglomerates.”

A ‘Threat’ to First Amendment Protections

Kirk Bailey, political director of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida, told Newsweek the legislation would “work to effectively erase the history and lived experiences of women, people of color and LGBTQ people and ban discussions around race, gender and sexuality that impact people’s daily lives.”

“HB 991 is a real and severe threat to our freedom of the press, that will have state-wide and even national implications. This is a brazen and blatant attack on the press that is intentionally designed to chill, silence and punish those who criticize public officials and their powerful allies,” he said.

“This is a threat to reporters in Florida, but it also poses a threat nationally, as this could lead to a legal ruling that overturns First Amendment protections for the media’s reporting on public figures or encourage other states to copy these laws being pushed by Governor DeSantis.

“The entire bill threatens both our freedoms by weakening state laws that have long protected the media from frivolous lawsuits, and will force journalists into a position of identifying their trusted anonymous sources or face liability.

“HB 991 also incentivizes lawsuits against journalists and others who write about race-based discrimination, discrimination against women, or discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.”

Ron DeSantis speaking to news reporters
Ron DeSantis answering questions from the media in the Florida Cabinet following his “State of the State” address during a joint session of the Florida Senate and House of Representatives at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, on March 7, 2023.

Concern about the new legislation was shared by Professor Joseph Russomanno, an expert in media law at Arizona State University.

He told Newsweek: “These proposals are from an old playbook, popularized by Donald Trump, that seeks to demonize the news media for reporting inconvenient facts. Autocrats traditionally target institutions or groups that they portray as something to fear and that only they can protect us from.

“These proposed laws would weaken or eliminate legal standards that have been in place for decades that are part of the First Amendment-based press freedom.”

The professor focused specifically on the “actual malice standard” within libel law, established by the Supreme Court in 1964, which he argued the new legislation would undermine.

He said: “Actual malice relieves the ‘chilling effect’ on the press by making it more difficult for public official plaintiffs to win libel claims, forcing them to prove that the defendant published information knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. There is a segment of officials today who believe that standard needs to be eliminated. Doing so would be a critical blow to press freedom and, in turn, to the American democracy.

“Given Florida’s current political climate, it seems to be a petri dish for this experiment. If this anti-press freedom culture takes root there, it will give confidence to other politicians with mindsets like Florida’s majority, allowing it to spread and possibly flourish elsewhere.

“It is also well known that some members of the U.S. Supreme Court would welcome the opportunity to re-examine and possibly eliminate actual malice.”

On this point Professor Russomanno compared a possible Supreme Court battle over the new legislation to its decision in June 2022 to overturn Roe v. Wade, guaranteeing the constitutional right to an abortion, after a law in Mississippi was challenged.

Newsweek has contacted both the Florida Republican Party and Representative Alex Andrade by email and telephone for comment on HB 991, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

Bloggers Could Face Fines of Up to $2,500

A bill on “information dissemination,” introduced into the Florida Senate by Republican Jason Brodeur, has also been criticized for its impact on free speech.

Under its terms bloggers must register with state authorities within five days if they post “a blog about an elected state officer and receives, or will receive, [financial] compensation for that post.”

For each post violating this law the blogger would be fined $25, up to a maximum of $2,500 per posting. The legislation defines a blog as “a website or webpage that hosts any blogger and is frequently updated with opinion, commentary, or business content,” but does not include newspapers or similar publications.

Speaking to website Florida Politics about his bill, Senator Brodeur said: “Paid bloggers are lobbyists who write instead of talk. They both are professional electioneers. If lobbyists have to register and report, why shouldn’t paid bloggers?”

Brodeur has previously told Newsweek that he believes the language of his bill makes clear that it would not apply to politically protected speech.

DeSantis has yet to confirm whether he will sign the bill into law. His press secretary, Bryan Griffin, told NBC News: “As usual, the governor will consider the merits of a bill in final form if and when it passes the legislature.”

Writing for news website, Jack Greiner, a partner in law firm Faruki PLL, described the proposal as “blatantly unconstitutional.”

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