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Florida bill would make it easier to file defamation lawsuits

People who oppose the bill say freedom of speech is on the line in Florida

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A bill that could change free speech in Florida is before lawmakers. 

It's a bill that could affect almost every Floridian, making it easier to sue and be sued for what you say.

Tuesday was the first time lawmakers discussed the bill in Tallahassee. 

It would affect traditional news outlets, but it could also limit what ordinary people say on social media platforms, podcasts or at public meetings. 

For instance, a man upset with a city council member calls him 'crooked' on Facebook. A podcaster attacks the credibility of the police. A journalist uses an anonymous source to protect the source from retaliation.  

All three are examples of free speech protected by the Constitution. And all three could become violations of a Florida law if it is passed this legislative session

House Bill 991 deals with defamation and libel. It does a lot of different things.

Republican Representative Alex Andrade from the panhandle presented his bill to colleagues Tuesday.

"What this bill will provide is opportunities for people who have been rightfully harmed by a false statement that hurt their reputation to seek justice and not have to spend egregiously large amounts of money," Andrade said. 

It’s getting a lot of pushbacks. First amendment attorneys, the ACLU, and the group Florida First Amendment Foundation say the bill chills free speech.

One person opposed to the bill told the house committee, "we should be making speech more free, not more libel."

"This bill is clearly politically motivated to stifle public discourse by instilling fear," Jon Harris Maurer of Equality Florida told legislators,  

The bill would make it much easier to sue for defamation. It would also allow people from around the country to file a lawsuit in Florida, as long as the speech was available in the state via the internet. 

That's something critics say will create "libel tourism."

 "Supporters of this bill says it is merely a way to curb the excesses of the corporate mainstream medium and level the playing field for the so-called little guy," Bobby Block of the First Amendment Foundation told lawmakers Tuesday. "But HB 991 weaponizes defamation law, so it becomes the death knell for the American traditions of free speech."

The bill's discussion Tuesday comes after a roundtable last month, held by Governor Ron DeSantis. 

During that roundtable, he called for a plan to make it easier to file defamation lawsuits against traditional media outlets or people who post online if the language targets public officials.

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