(NEW YORK) – A new proposed law in Florida would pose a “grave threat to journalism and free speech” through radical changes to long-established defamation law, PEN America said today, condemning the bill as “blatantly unconstitutional.” Supported by Governor DeSantis,  HB 991 would make it easier for policymakers and public figures to sue journalists, their political opponents, and their critics for defamation by lowering the legal standard courts would apply and singling out certain topics and sources for disfavored treatment.

Proposed this week, the bill would make statements by anonymous sources presumptively false and allegations of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity defamatory per se.

In addition, public figures would no longer have to meet a heightened standard to prove defamation— as the Supreme Court ruled nearly 60 years ago— if the statement “does not relate to his or her public status,” making it easier for politicians to sue when allegations of  infidelity or even crimes committed prior to their assumption of office surface. 

Currently, people whose statements are found to be defamatory have to pay damages to those who are harmed. But the Supreme Court has long recognized that free speech must have a necessary amount of “breathing space” to survive. That is why, in the landmark 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan, the Court decided that when people are discussing public figures or matters of public concern a higher standard for finding liability must be met. People are only liable for making false statements when talking about politicians or other public figures if the plaintiff can prove that the speaker knew or should have known the statement was false.

“With this legislation, Florida politicians seek to insulate themselves from criticism and weaponize the courts to chill speech and attack journalists,” said Kate Ruane, director of PEN America’s US Free Expression Programs. “It’s blatantly unconstitutional, but could still wreak tremendous havoc if it passes. The United States has a long tradition of open and robust political debate, which has been underpinned by a strong and free press that need not fear a lawsuit for doing their jobs. This bill will hobble reporters as they investigate the impacts of the implementation of policies like the Stop W.O.K.E. Act and the “Don’t Say Gay” Law. It will chill civil society, including civil rights and civil liberties advocates, in their efforts to fight for better policies in Florida. It’s a gift to the powerful at the expense of the Constitution. We condemn it.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057