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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee.

A bill challenging media defamation standards is moving through the Florida Legislature

Reporter. Taking notes. Media interview.
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Reporter. Taking notes. Media interview.

A plan to make it easier for journalists and others to be sued is back for a second year.

Pensacola Republican Rep. Alex Andrade’s bill loosens the requirement to find members of the media liable for defamation against public officials while also laying the groundwork for people to sue those who use artificial intelligence to cast people in a false light.

The landmark New York Times vs. Sullivan supreme court ruling laid out the standards for how public figures could sue the press. Justices ruled that for the press to be found liable for defamation, the complainant had to demonstrate the journalist had actual malice, or intentionally meant to cause the harm.

The scope of Sullivan has been criticized by several current supreme court justices, who say the actual malice standard is too broad. Situations where untrue statements from anonymous sources are published in the press with disastrous consequences, like in the pre-Iraq war coverage by the New York Times, have added to that criticism.

Andrade’s bill would open journalists and news outlets to be sued if they publish false information from a single anonymous source. Andrade said the bill is meant to make the malice standard less broad and provide a way to hold journalists who do not follow industry standards with anonymous sources accountable.

“If an article comes out about a public figure, it's proven to be false. And that statement of fact, is based solely on a single anonymous source, that journalist has committed such egregious malpractice that the standard of liability in this context actual malice has been met,” he said.

First amendment advocates have been critical of Andrade’s bill, citing concerns that it will chill free speech in Florida. Bobby Block of the Florida First Amendment Foundation said that it will lead to a host of frivolous lawsuits from across the country for people that criticize the powerful.

“I think Florida will become the libel tourism destination of the United States, opening up a floodgate of frivolous lawsuits against writers, broadcasters, comedians, mom and pop Facebookers, who may or may not have erred in reporting or criticizing the acts of public officials and wealthy public figures.”

Andrade thinks that criticism is off the mark.

“The bill doesn't create an avenue for frivolous lawsuits to be brought. The bill doesn't create circumstances where someone who, you know, was offended by a statement of opinion can somehow win a defamation lawsuit, and it doesn't incentivize any new lawsuits related to things that aren't the proper subject of defamation. And it absolutely doesn't create these avenues for frivolous lawsuits or allow for people to use frivolous lawsuits to shut people up when they're engaging in public discourse. I care very much about the First Amendment. And I would never support a bill that would do that,” he said.

According to the staff analysis of the bill, a person can still not sue if the statement from the anonymous source is an opinion. It has to be about a statement of fact.

Andrade’s bill doesn’t just deal with defamation. It also allows people to sue when artificial intelligence is used to create deepfake content meant to display them in a false light. That issue has garnered national attention as public figures like Taylor Swift have had offensive Artificial Intelligence content generated of them and disseminated on social media. Andrades’ bill gives people options to seek damages from malicious A.I. users. He said his bill deals with the fact that their can be real harm from misleading usages of artificial intelligence, but there are limits in his bill.

“In recognition of, you know, we might get things wrong, makes clear that the only person liable for causing that harm is the person who creates or edits that, that media using artificial intelligence,” he said.

Support for his bill has been divided along party lines, and is still working its way through committee.

Tristan Wood is a senior producer and host with WFSU Public Media. A South Florida native and University of Florida graduate, he focuses on state government in the Sunshine State and local panhandle political happenings.