A Florida Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill that would make it defamation to accuse someone of racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia, a measure that would deal a devastating blow to freedom of speech in the Sunshine State.
The bill, which was introduced Friday, would make it much easier for someone to sue another person for defamation. The measure states that “an allegation that the plaintiff has discriminated against another person or group because of their race, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity constitutes defamation per se.”
Proving “actual malice” is one of the main requirements of a successful defamation case. And this bill would make that easier, setting up conditions for a fact-finder to automatically infer that actual malice took place after an accusation of discrimination.
In cases of alleged homophobia or transphobia, defendants charged with defamation are not allowed to use the plaintiff’s religious or scientific beliefs as part of their defense. If they are found liable for defamation, the defendant could be fined at least $35,000.
The bill applies to statements made in print, on television, or on social media. It also states that someone who is caught in a viral video engaging in allegedly discriminatory behaviors does not qualify as a “public figure,” giving those people even more grounds to sue.
Finally, the bill removes certain journalistic privileges, particularly the right to keep sources anonymous. Statements from anonymous sources would be considered “presumptively false,” making journalists reporting on discrimination vulnerable to lawsuits.
“More attempts to chill free speech in the ‘free’ State of Florida,” Democratic state Representative Anna Eskamani tweeted about the measure.
The bill was introduced by state Senator Jason Brodeur, who, despite claiming he wants to protect free speech, has taken aim at the right to free speech multiple times. In 2023, he introduced a bill that would require paid bloggers who write about elected officials to register with the state. Such a registry of political writers and independent journalists would have allowed for increased surveillance.
Brodeur’s new bill is almost an exact copy of another measure introduced early last year. That original bill passed the Civil Justice Subcommittee but ultimately failed in the Judiciary Committee.
Florida increased its attacks on LGBTQ rights over the course of 2023. With Republicans holding both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s office, the new version might stand a chance.
If the new bill does become law, it is unlikely to survive a legal challenge due to its clear violations of free speech and anti-discrimination laws. But as with so many Republican culture-war laws, the point is not to create good legislation. The point is to scare people.