After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called for “media accountability,” the Republican-controlled state House and Senate introduced a pair of bills that would make it easier to sue journalists, a familiar culture war target. Conservative opposition to the legislation on First Amendment grounds, however, suggests the removal of limitations in defamation laws isn’t a straightforward partisan matter.
Americans for Prosperity, the flagship conservative political advocacy group funded by billionaire businessman Charles Koch and his late brother David, has lobbied on the legislation, according to state lobbying disclosures reviewed by The Intercept — though not in support of it.
“AFP works to make it easier for all Americans to speak up and hold political leaders accountable.”
“AFP works to make it easier for all Americans to speak up and hold political leaders accountable,” a spokesperson for Americans for Prosperity told The Intercept after being asked about the lobbying. “One of the ways we do that is protect people from frivolous lawsuits targeting their speech by making it possible for judges to quickly review and dismiss bogus cases aimed at silencing opponents.”
“While our focus on this bill was on addressing the sections that would undermine those hard-won reforms, if those sections are changed, we will be neutral on the bill but not supportive of it,” the spokesperson went on. “We do not support the other aspects of the bill that are in direct opposition to the First Amendment.”
Americans for Prosperity has consistently advocated for freedom of speech and anti-SLAPP — strategic lawsuits against public participation — legislation, designed to block and discourage frivolous lawsuits intended to silence criticisms.
Still, the position is noteworthy given that Americans for Prosperity’s political arm endorsed DeSantis in his reelection bid last year. (The Koch network’s super PAC also endorsed DeSantis during his hotly contested Republican primary for governor in 2018.) The influential libertarian group announced in February that it would oppose President Donald Trump’s candidacy in the 2024 presidential race.
The legislative efforts in Florida, House Bill 991 and Senate Bill 1220, would make it easier for litigants to win defamation suits against journalists, including by removing a reporter’s privilege to not reveal the identities of confidential sources.
“The bills would make it easier for public figures to intimidate their critics by threatening costly and time consuming litigation.”
“If passed, the bills would significantly harm journalism in Florida,” the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said in its analysis of the bills.
AFP dispatched three lobbyists, Daniel Martinez, Christopher Stranburg, and Derick Tabertshofer, to work the legislature on the bills — the most of any group lobbying on the bills.
Another group that has received substantial funding from the Koch brothers, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, a civil liberties group that advocates for free speech, also opposes the legislation.
“HB 991 and SB 1220 are in direct conflict with decades of Supreme Court precedent setting a high bar on what public figures need to prove to sustain a lawsuit alleging defamation,” Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for FIRE, told The Intercept. “The bills would make it easier for public figures to intimidate their critics by threatening costly and time consuming litigation.”
In February, DeSantis urged the Supreme Court to revisit New York Times v. Sullivan, the 1964 ruling that established that defamation claims by public figures must prove “actual malice” — put simply, that the false statements were made intentionally in an effort to harm the plaintiff.
On Thursday, DeSantis signaled support for the legislation, with deputy press secretary Jeremy Redfern telling HuffPost, “It is encouraging to see the Legislature taking up the important topic of media accountability and joining the conversation that the governor began.”
In a panel discussion in February featuring Nicholas Sandmann — who became a right-wing sensation when he sued a handful of news organizations for defamation over misreporting of a viral video, settling several cases and losing others — DeSantis commented that “there’d probably be a couple other justices that would be receptive to” reversing the Sullivan ruling, in addition to conservative Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas.
As with right-wing advocacy groups, conservative media figures have likewise criticized the legislation. James Schwartzel, owner of the talk radio station 92.5 FOX News, which carries Sean Hannity and other conservative commentators, reportedly called the legislation “a death knell for American traditions of free speech,” remarking that it would lead to “the death of conservative talk throughout the state of Florida.”
“Existing law already gives public figures remedies when people publish deliberate falsehoods about them, but wisely leaves room for simple mistakes when criticizing public figures,” Cohn, of FIRE, said. “The bills threaten to stifle discussions of matters of public concern and Florida lawmakers would be wise to scrap them.”
The Senate bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Jason Brodeur, recently introduced a separate bill that would require bloggers writing about elected officials to register with the state of Florida. Following public backlash, DeSantis distanced himself from the legislation.
The blogger registration bill also drew criticism from some prominent conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, who called it “insane.”