Ron DeSantis’ Office Tried To Change Media’s Protection From Lawsuits

( The Orlando Sentinel reported that a top aide to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) pushed for a bill that would have weakened a critical legal argument media outlets use to defend themselves against defamation lawsuits by public figures.

Stephanie Kopelousos, DeSantis’ legislative affairs director, emailed staffers for several legislators, including State Sen. President Wilton Simpson (R) and State Sen. Jennifer Bradley (R), to promote a draft bill that would “challenge decades-old First Amendment protections for the news media and make it easier for high-profile people to win defamation lawsuits.

No bill was filed, but the correspondence shows the governor’s mindset and what he may support if re-elected in November.

The issue centers on a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, in which the court ruled that a public figure plaintiff must prove not only the standard elements of a defamation case (publication of a false, defamatory statement to a third party) but also “that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’ – that is, with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false.”

In February, the Sullivan “actual malice” standard was critical in a judge’s dismissal of former Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R-AK) lawsuit against the New York Times. The judge noted that Palin had failed to meet “the law’s very high standard” in her complaint. The jury reached the same conclusion as the judge the next day: the Times had not defamed Palin and was not liable.

Kopelousos’ emails, sent Jan. 11 before the 2022 general session began, including a draft of proposed legislation and a briefing document that “declared the goal was to end federal standards established in the Times ruling and make defamation a matter of state law.”

The draft bill would have made several notable changes to First Amendment law practice in Florida, mainly by changing how “actual malice” was determined to view “a failure to validate or corroborate the alleged defamatory statement” as evidence of actual malice, a lower standard than the Supreme Court’s “reckless disregard” for the truth.

The bill redefined “public figure” and presumed anonymous defamation claims false.

Former President Donald Trump called libel laws a “sham and disgrace” and promised to pass new laws that were more “fair.” DeSantis has often criticized the media for charging him, and his spokesperson Christina Pushaw has gone even further.

This bill was never submitted, but if it had been, it would have clashed with Supreme Court precedent from Sullivan, but that won’t stop DeSantis or his GOP allies in the legislature.

In the past year, Republican state lawmakers have supported the governor. Bradley sponsored a DeSantis-backed bill to repeal Disney’s Reedy Creek special taxing district. The GOP-controlled House and Senate passed a constitutionally dubious congressional district map after DeSantis vetoed the legislature. Both bills passed in a week without Republican opposition.