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EDITORIAL: Political leaders must keep their hands off free speech

Florida political leaders seemingly target free speech rights, and we should all be alarmed

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) is under fire for attempting to suppress free speech as a troubling bill sits in the Florida House of Representatives that looks to change defamation lawsuits. – Photo by @GovRonDeSantis / Twitter

On Saturday, The New York Times Editorial Board released an editorial detailing a new defamation bill within the Florida House of Representatives and emphasizing the alarming implications of its potential passage.

The bill threatens a key Supreme Court decision from 1964 in The New York Times Company v. Sullivan court case, which makes clear that "actual malice" must be evident in a defendant's statement against another person for it to constitute defamation.

This effectively means that defendants must have been aware that the information they were releasing was false, or they clearly did not take the time to fact-check what they were saying.

Specifically, the proposed legislation indicates that proving malice will have less stringent guidelines for future defamation lawsuits.

This precedent of proving "actual malice" is very important in the newsroom specifically. Journalists need to be protected by the law when they engage in controversial and sometimes personal investigations of public figures. It is their job to uncover important information that voters should know when considering a candidate.

Journalists are human beings, though. They make unintentional errors, and they have the power to impact someone's reputation significantly. But this does not mean they had evil intentions when it is their job to inform the public.

As explained in The New York Times editorial, several alterations to the definition of malice in this bill make it particularly concerning.

For one, the bill increases the amount of scrutiny rewarded to anonymous sources used in articles. Statements from anonymous sources would be considered "unverified" or "presumptively false."

In general, anonymous sources play a major role in journalism, and they become increasingly important with sensitive topics affecting states like Florida.

As Florida's medical boards limit transgender medical care for youth and legislators seek to do the same with abortion, people must feel safe enough to speak up. Journalists need to feel secure in releasing their reports, and anonymous sources should not feel more pressured to come forward, so their claims are not deemed "presumptively false."

We also cannot forget the importance of anonymity regarding sexual assault victims coming forward. This can be daunting when victims accuse prominent media figures or political leaders, who then may file lawsuits that accuse victims of seeking to damage their reputations maliciously.

This is especially dangerous as sexual assault victims already face threats of defamation suits and expanding the definition of defamation could exacerbate this intimidating prospect.

The amount of backlash victims have faced when coming out against public figures, like Supreme Court Justice Brett Cavanaugh and former governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, is terrifying, and we should not overlook that.

With all of this in mind, political leaders should not be using their authority to intimidate people. These attempts to intensify what constitutes malice feel dangerously repressive, especially for the ordinary person who cannot financially or emotionally carry the burden of a defamation suit.

Because this bill would also affect comments made on the internet or social media, it is truly all-encompassing.

While social media platforms are very different from official newsrooms, they still contribute to public discourse that calls out people in power, and now this freedom could also be targeted.

And one cannot help but wonder how this would even work logistically. Even though platforms like Instagram have tried to crack down on issues concerning sensitive content and false information, how would they also regulate defamation if this bill is signed into law?

If this bill only passed in Florida, what would policy look like online? Would social media policies be different for different states?

These kinds of questions expose the possibility of internet, legal and general chaos that will overwhelm everyone and could be easily avoided if the definition of defamation is left in its original form.

Even though one can argue that this bill has many barriers to overcome before being signed into law, whether that be through counter lawsuits and potentially the Supreme Court, it is hard to trust the checks and balances of our democracy as we have seen longstanding legislation, like Roe v. Wade, cease to exist in the highest court of the country.

And more than that, political leaders should not be attempting to do this in the first place.

Journalism is important everywhere. If Florida is affected, that is a wake-up call to the entire nation.

As covered in a previous editorial from The Daily Targum, the George Santos political scandal was uncovered by a local newspaper. All local newspapers must maintain the ability to investigate political leaders without fear of a defamation case.

If newsrooms in Florida are impacted by this bill, the entire country will suffer, especially if they are limited in their coverage of the Florida government, particularly Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla) and his allies, as they push for increasingly extreme legislation.

We must remember that journalism is not just storytelling. It is the distribution of critical information and exposing the truth even if we do not want to hear it.

And this kind of critical coverage should be encouraged, not silenced, at every level of reporting. College newspapers in Florida could be affected, and what would this mean for student writers?

Compared to local and national newspapers, college newspapers represent the little guy. They can be volunteer-based and lack the funds to fight daunting defamation suits. Yet, college is also the time to put yourself out there, engage in activism and hold public figures and organizations accountable.

As a student newspaper, this kind of attempted suppression threatens our very purpose.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 155th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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