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Defamation changes move through Florida House, Senate panels

TALLAHASSEE — Senate and House panels this week approved bills that would make major changes to the state’s defamation laws, potentially exposing news media organizations to increased liability and addressing the use of artificial intelligence to portray people in a false light.

The Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Regulatory Reform & Economic Development Subcommittee approved similar bills (SB 1780 and HB 757) that are drawing opposition from many First Amendment advocates, who call it unconstitutional.

The bills could make it easier for public figures to sue journalists who rely on anonymous sources for information that turns out to be false. The bills would create what is known as a “rebuttable presumption” of actual malice that journalists would have to overcome to avoid being found liable in cases involving anonymous sources.

They would place new requirements on media organizations to remove online material that is false. One change could expose the organizations to punitive damages if they don’t remove the material within certain timeframes.

And they would create an easier legal standard for people to receive damages in lawsuits over uses of artificial intelligence that falsely portray them. A House staff analysis said that under current law, people would have to show that their reputations have been damaged but that the proposal would require them to prove they “suffered emotional harm,” an easier standard to meet.

Florida’s current defamation laws are based on court precedents. That includes the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan, which found that public figures must show actual malice to prevail in defamation cases.

Opponents of the bills point to concerns about how they could affect the use of anonymous sources by journalists to investigate the conduct of public officials. They also contend that the changes would be unconstitutional because of the Sullivan ruling.

Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Florida, told the Senate committee Monday that the proposed changes seek to “undermine decades of Supreme Court precedents and infringe upon the free-speech rights of those who criticize or comment on public officials and speak out on matters of public importance.”

“It will put journalists in a position of needing to out their trusted sources or face liability,” Gross said. “Among other things, this bill chills speech of journalists as well as members of the public who criticize officials.”

But House bill sponsor Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, disputed such arguments.

“You’re entitled to have a really bad statement of opinion. You’re entitled to really ignorant opinions,” Andrade told the House panel Tuesday. “What you’re not entitled to do, what this bill does not change, is the fact that when someone makes a false statement of fact to harm your reputation, you should be allowed to seek redress in courts because you suffered actual damages.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-2 to support the Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford. The bill would need approval from two more committees before it could go to the full Senate.

The House Regulatory Reform & Economic Development Subcommittee voted 8-5 to approve Andrade’s bill. It needs to clear one more committee before it could go to the full House.