USA: RSF opposes Florida’s proposed anti-media bill and calls to overturn constitutional protections for journalists
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for Florida’s legislature to reject a proposed bill that would deter journalists from reporting critically about public figures without fear of penalty. If adopted, the draft legislation would overturn provisions in the current law protecting the media’s check on power by setting a high bar for defamation cases to be brought against media outlets.
A lawmaker in Florida has proposed a bill, HB 991, that would make it easier to sue journalists for defamation, effectively countering the 1964 Supreme Court’s precedent protecting journalists from defamation while carrying out their required duties covering public figures. If passed, the bill could result in the issue being brought for review by the current conservative-leaning Supreme Court, prompting fears for the possible overturning of the 1964 ruling in the landmark case of New York Times v. Sullivan.
“This law would have a chilling effect on all kinds of reporting and inevitably lead to public officials escaping the kind of accountability democracy depends on. RSF calls for Florida lawmakers to vote against these proposed bills or prevent them from coming to a vote. Additionally, we call for Governor DeSantis to stop his verbal attacks on the media as they are a fundamental element of US democracy.
New York Times v. Sullivan made it so that any public figure wishing to sue for defamation had to clearly show that a journalist’s statements were made knowingly or with “actual malice.” This allows journalists to investigate and criticize public figures without fear of financial penalty.
The legislation in front of Florida lawmakers now aligns with the war Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has waged against the media while in office. DeSantis has explicitly called for New York Times v. Sullivan to be overturned. According to the Republican governor and other critics, the ruling allows the “liberal mainstream media” to bash conservatives without accountability. DeSantis has repeatedly spoken out on the issue, even creating a panel about “defamation” he broadcast of himself in February.
Governor DeSantis appears likely to run for the 2024 Republican nomination for president, challenging former President Donald Trump. Both have actively sought to silence critical voices in the media.
During his presidency, Trump asked what could be done to punish members of the media for doing their jobs. According to the New York Times, Trump broached the topic of jailing journalists who published classified information with then FBI director James Comey in 2017.
Press freedom conditions in the US swiftly declined during the Trump administration. In 2020, President Trump’s fourth year in office, a record-breaking number of journalists were arrested, in addition to 856 other types of aggressions committed against journalists – the majority of which were deliberate and unprovoked physical attacks on clearly identified reporters. The final days of the Trump administration were marked by an armed attack in Washington, DC in which five people were killed, and rioters damaged tens of thousands of dollars worth of media equipment owned by The Associated Press, smashed cameras while yelling “CNN sucks,” and scrawled the words, “Murder The Media” onto doors inside the Capitol Building.
The United States is ranked 42nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index.