Why Florida’s proposed libel laws undermine conservative principles

'Florida has led the way in defending freedom of conscience and expanding educational choice. It would be a mistake to stand liberty on its head in a crusade against biased reporters and pundits.'

The legislative impulse behind Florida’s proposed libel laws — HB 757 and SB 1780 — is understandable. Conservatives are justifiably outraged by the lies and vitriol directed at them by an overwhelmingly liberal media complex that dominates public discourse. The bills aim to hold purveyors of misinformation accountable by making it easier to sue for defamation.

Alas, these proposed laws are misguided and threaten to undermine long-cherished conservative principles. However well-intentioned, they contravene fundamental tenets that conservatives have long championed — limited government, free markets and individual liberty. By inviting more regulation and litigation, they expand state power at the expense of personal freedom. Their actual effect would be to chill speech, imperil small media outlets and open the door to the very “lawfare” tactics liberals have used so effectively against conservatives.

Consider Section 1, the requirement to take down entire articles if even a single word is claimed to be false. Impossible to fully comply with, this imposes an onerous prior restraint on speech and will lead risk-averse publishers to avoid controversial stories altogether. Much commentary and criticism — the lifeblood of public debate — would be suppressed.

The legislation also largely eliminates the requirement that unsuccessful plaintiffs pay defendants’ legal costs. This removes the main deterrent against frivolous lawsuits designed to harass political opponents and smaller media organizations without deep pockets.

The bills would further advantage plaintiffs by allowing unfettered forum shopping, letting them file suit in plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions regardless of the defendant’s location or circulation. A conservative radio host in Pensacola could be hauled into court in Miami-Dade. This is an open invitation to vexatious litigation. The legislation also reintroduces previously barred claims like false light that places vague prohibitions on how someone can be portrayed. Fringe activists and politicians will exploit this to their advantage.

One can envision the cottage industry of lawsuits industry this legislation would spawn and the chilling effect it would have. Ironically, while intended as a cudgel against mainstream outlets, conservative media would bear the brunt. The dominant liberal press and their allies have the resources to wage prolonged legal battles; smaller right-leaning and center-right outlets do not. Many would face potential bankruptcy from legal bills even if they ultimately prevail in court. Faced with this threat, they would feel compelled to pull their punches when scrutinizing liberal politicians and activists.

Some conservative legislators, cognizant of these objections, have offered assurances that protections remain for commentators and reporters. Yet such assurances ring hollow. Legislative language matters far more than after-the-fact explanations of intent. The bills as written open a Pandora’s box of threats that imperil a vibrant marketplace of ideas.

As conservatives, our critiques of contemporary liberalism often target its illiberalism — the impulse to enforce uniformity of thought through coercion and administrative fiat rather than persuasion. These proposals succumb to a similar temptation, employing state power to try to equalize perceived ideological imbalance. This is a fool’s errand destined to undermine the very freedoms it seeks to reinvigorate.

This is also not just a Florida matter. During the Republican Primary, Gov. Ron DeSantis rightly took fellow Republican Primary contender Nikki Haley to task over her misguided proposal to ban anonymous online speech by forcing social media companies to verify all users. DeSantis correctly noted such a policy would be dangerous and unconstitutional, contrary to American traditions going back to the founding era. Haley’s half-hearted backtracking underscores the flaws inherent in any proposals to limit First Amendment protections, and the outrage about her comments applies just as well to HB 757 and SB 1780.

Conservatives understand the majoritarian temptation inherent in democracy but resist it in deference to enduring principles — state neutrality on matters of conscience, individual autonomy from state interference. To forsake these core beliefs when politically opportune, even in the quest for righteous ends, puts us on the road to serfdom that conservatives have long warned against.

Of course, the liberal media’s failings will always be with us. But the solution lies not in constrained speech but more speech. Instead of expanded regulations, conservatives should continue dismantling barriers to entry in media markets. This will yield more venues for conservative commentary and further erode legacy outlets’ ability to set the terms of debate. Heavy-handed state interventions in the name of fairness, by contrast, typically have the opposite effect.

Florida has led the way in defending freedom of conscience and expanding educational choice. It would be a mistake to stand liberty on its head in a crusade against biased reporters and pundits. Conservatives should reject these proposals not in spite of our convictions but because of them. Or put more simply: Our principles are worth taking fire from the Left.


Drew Steele is a host on 92.5 FOX News, airing in the Fort Myers and Naples area.

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  • Tom Palmer

    February 13, 2024 at 9:37 am

    I think people of all political persuasions are outraged by the lies circulating by people who disagree with them. A lot of that is coming from political operatives, not legitimate media.
    No one has ever demonstrated that there is any rationale for this legislation in the first place. Defamation is already actionable.
    There are barriers to proving malice, though it is worth remembering that the subject of the New York Times vs Sullivan lawsuit involved a full-page ad placed by activists, not a news story.

  • JD

    February 13, 2024 at 9:46 am

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a real conservative amongst the group in power in Florida claiming to be, but I have long held the stance these laws are going to come back and bite them in the ass (mostly through the channels mentioned in the article).

    They keep screaming states rights and limited government, while passing draconian laws (which many trample on the local governance).

  • Jacob B

    February 13, 2024 at 9:49 am

    It’s adorable that you think the party, that literally does not post a party platform or distinguishable set of principles on their website will care. The entire MAGA movement is one giant exercise of short-sightedness.

    Like DeSantis mandating no masks in business.
    Like DeSantis decreeing local teaching materials, banning books.
    Like DeSantis targeting businesses that speak out against state policy.

    Power is a pendulum that will swing the other way in time.

    Conservatives in this state have sold their soul to populism that will be short lived. The effects however will be long lasting.

    The powers they’ve ceded to the executive branch will be wielding effectively by the other side, without due cause to correct, given their cessation of principles to abate their use.

    • Dont Say FLA

      February 13, 2024 at 10:09 am

      FLgOP’s platform is “Do whatever Trump wants us to do regardless of whether it benefits Trump or the public, and regardless of the Trump benefiting actions are contrary to the public interest, such as Trump canceling the border deal for, reportedly, his own campaign purposes, or counter to the public interest. FLgOP don’t care about the public. They only care to do what Trump tells them to do, hoping to get a job in Trumplandia should Trumplandia come to bear.

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