Gov. Ron DeSantis has long courted right-wing news outlets, while mainstream reporters are dismissed as biased and unreliable. But legislation that would sharply curtail press freedom in Florida creates a rare rift between the governor and the media that propelled his rise to power.
The legislation, drafted at the urging of Mr. DeSantis as he heads toward a presidential bid, targets several protections in state and federal law, including the decades-old Supreme Court precedent that makes it difficult for public figures to win libel lawsuits. The proposals are wrapped up in two bills that will pass through the Republican-controlled legislature.
While public opposition has largely come from left-wing and nonpartisan free-speech groups, forces traditionally aligned with Mr. DeSantis have been sounding the alarm in recent weeks. They warn that the governor and his GOP allies have failed to consider the impact of the bills on right-wing reporters and commentators, not just the mainstream media that has become punching bags for Republican politicians.
“The sword cuts both ways,” Trey Radel, a radio talk show host and former Republican congressman, said late last month as he railed against the legislation on his evening show.
Mr. Radel argued that the two proposed bills could lead to a deluge of costly libel lawsuits against conservative websites and talk and news outlets, such as the one that carries his program, a Fox News affiliate in Fort Myers. Such lawsuits could bankrupt stations like his, he added, “and here’s who’s going to pay the biggest price politically: Ron DeSantis.”
The legislation under consideration in Tallahassee seeks to challenge the longstanding Supreme Court precedent known as New York Times v. Sullivan — which protects publishers of all types from defamation lawsuits, unless an error is intentional or the result of negligence. The legislation would also remove several protections for Florida journalists, limit the definition of a public figure and establish the presumption that any statement from an anonymous source, including whistleblowers, would automatically be considered false.
Throughout his political career, Mr. DeSantis relied heavily on conservative media, slipping well-timed scoops to outlets like Breitbart News and The Epoch Times and regularly appearing on primetime shows on Fox News. He has labeled mainstream reporters hostile and suggested that the news media has abused the protections afforded by the First Amendment.
“At the end of the day, it’s our opinion in Florida that we want to stand up for the little guy against some of these huge media conglomerates.” Mr. DeSantis said this at a roundtable meeting on defamation he organized in February.
Marc Randazza, a First Amendment attorney who has represented numerous right-wing outlets in libel cases, notes that the legislation would most likely have a chilling effect on the press. News outlets might think twice before covering difficult topics or criticizing public figures when an inadvertent mistake could lead to a costly judgment; it could also drive up insurance rates, forcing some businesses to close.
Mr. Randazza, whose firm is represented Alex Jonesthe broadcaster, which is facing more than $1.4 billion in legal damages for defaming the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, said it was urging its customers to write letters to Mr DeSantis and the sponsors of the bills, asking them to scrap the legislation.
“I’m not an anti-DeSantis guy. He is currently my first choice for president, but this legislation is going in the wrong direction,” Randazza said.
“If you make a weapon that you think can hurt your enemies, don’t be surprised if it hurts you too,” he said.
A spokesman for Mr DeSantis, Jeremy Redfern, did not respond to questions about the growing backlash from the right. Mr Redfern said only that it was “encouraging to see the legislature take up the important issue of media accountability and join the conversation the governor started earlier this year.”
Representative Alex Andrade said he sponsored the House bill to “bring some sense back into the relationship” between the press and the public.
The main impetus for the legislation, he said, was to target the Sullivan standard. The sponsor of the accompanying Senate bill, Jason Brodeur, did not respond to a request for comment.
A wide range of voices agreed. On March 23, Representative Cory Mills, a freshman Republican from Florida, sent a letter to the leaders of both houses of the Florida legislature calling the proposals “unpatriotic” and warning that the bills would “stifle all media voices — whether liberal, conservative, or neutral — that your voters have come to trust and rely upon.”
William P. Barr, the former attorney general under President Donald J. Trump, wrote a op-ed in The Wall Street Journal offensive attempts to curtail press freedoms last weekend. “There are very few conservative news outlets right now,” he wrote, without specifically referring to Florida legislation. “Why should we make them more vulnerable to plaintiffs’ multitude of left-wing lawyers?”
Last month, James Schwartzel, the president of Sun Broadcasting, which owns the Fox affiliate where Mr. Radel’s show airs, said, sent an email to eight members of the Florida House, Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, and Mr. DeSantis’ communications director, calling on officials to “KILL” the House version of the bill.
“The bill creates too much liability for our business to continue. We will change our conservative programming and the announcers will stop,” Mr. Schwartzel.
On Saturday, The Gateway Pundit, a far-right news site, published an editorial against the House bill, stating that if it “passes, there is no doubt that conservative media outlets will suffer.” Even the founder of Florida’s Voice, one of Mr. DeSantis’ most trusted outlets, has spoken out against the legislation, tweet last month that it would allow the left to “weapon this law against their enemies”.
National media have not spoken out publicly.
Newsmax, a right-wing broadcaster, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Salem Media Group, which produces conservative radio shows and podcasts.
Solicited for comment, Fox News – which has argued for protection under the Sullivan precedent in its libel suit filed by Dominion Voting Systems — pointed to a speech by Lachlan Murdoch in Australia a year ago. “We must always be wary of withholding information,” said Mr. Murdoch, the CEO of Fox Corp. “The contemporary sensation of ‘cancelling’ someone whose opinion you don’t share is just the latest insidious form of censorship.”
Legislative concerns are not limited to the press. Provisions in the accounts would increase payouts to plaintiffs while making it more expensive for defendants to fight lawsuits. They would also allow libel suits to be brought virtually anywhere in Florida, allowing forum shopping to increase plaintiffs’ chances of winning.
Those measures seem particularly aimed at encouraging lawsuits against ordinary people, rather than media outlets, who can also be affected by defamation cases, but are much less likely to have insurance coverage to protect them or pay the costs of litigation. Critics say the legislation would lower the bar for a restaurant to, say, sue a customer for a negative Yelp review, or for the president of a homeowners association to sue a resident for posting of a complaint on Facebook.
Americans for Prosperity, the influential libertarian-leaning group funded by Charles Koch, has opposed the legislation, arguing it would open all Americans to “frivolous lawsuits targeting their speech.”
And Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which also receives Koch funding, said he believed the legislation was drafted with a view to settling scores — real or imaginary — with news outlets criticizing on Mr. DeSantis and other Republicans in Florida.
“There is an initial point of animosity with the press and they are trying to use legislatures to take back territory they think they have lost,” said Mr. Cohn. “But they haven’t really thought through the consequences.”
At two recent hearings in Tallahassee, not a single member of the public has testified in support of the bills, and dozens of people appeared to oppose it. Nevertheless, Republican supporters of the bill show little sign of hesitation.
Mr. DeSantis has not publicly endorsed the legislation. Yet his fingerprints are clearly visible. In the Round table discussion on defamation in Februaryhe discussed many of the measures that ended up in the bills and said the changes “would contribute to an increase in ethics in the media.”
And in January 2022, the governor’s office circulated proposed bill similar to the bills submitted this year.
That legislation was intended to “invite challenges” to existing Supreme Court precedent, according to an accompanying briefing note first reported in The Orlando Sentinel.
Rachel Fugate, a First Amendment attorney in Tampa, said some opponents of the bill likely held their fire, hoping the legislation would not pass or, if it did, be thrown out by the courts. Conservatives in the state were reluctant to directly hire the governor.
“If they challenge the bills, they’ll have to go up against DeSantis,” Mrs. Fugate said.