Newsmax Trashes Florida GOP Bills Targeting the ‘Liberal Media’

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Newsmax has joined the legions of conservative media outlets and figures who have trashed a pair of Florida GOP bills that ostensibly aim to curb so-called “liberal media” by loosening the definition of defamation.

“Newsmax strongly opposes both bills and any proposed law that makes it easy to sue media companies,” Chris Ruddy, Newsmax’s CEO, said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Free speech and a free press are the most fundamental of our constitutional rights and must be zealously safeguarded.” (Newsmax maintains a headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida, and Ruddy is a West Palm Beach native and a friend of former President Donald Trump.)

The bills—House Bill 757 and its Florida Senate companion, SB 1780—would lower the threshold for defamation in Florida, allowing public officials to sue journalists and media outlets if an anonymous source says something the official believes to be false. The bills passed out of a Florida House committee on Wednesday in a 14-7 vote, and it is next headed to a Florida House vote.

Whatever the right-wing legislative effort’s intentions, these conservative critics say, it would be an affront to the First Amendment and would ultimately harm right-of-center media.

State Rep. Alex Andrade, a self-described “conservative fighter,” proposed the House bill after a failed attempt at pushing the legislation into law last year. He told the Florida House’s Civil Justice Subcommittee last month that the media was “not engaging in sufficient self-regulation” and that journalists cannot “act so recklessly that they publish something that could harm someone’s reputation without doing the bare minimum utility.”

The accompanying Senate bill, SB 1780, was proposed by Republican state Sen. Jason Brodeur. Andrade and Brodeur’s offices did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.

The House bill defines defamation as “libel, slander, invasion of privacy, or any other tort founded upon any single publication, exhibition or utterance,” excluding statements of opinion. That extends to the use of anonymous sources, according to the bill’s text. If an anonymous source makes a false statement that’s published by a news organization, the outlet can be accused of “actual malice” by printing the statement.

To prove whether a statement constitutes defamation, the bill would introduce “veracity hearings,” where a defendant would have to prove to a judge within 60 days of the lawsuit why the allegedly defamatory statement is factual. The bills would also allow plaintiffs to file the lawsuit in any Florida county if the plaintiff believes their reputation has been damaged there.

But the two bills, which advance GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desire to hamstring legacy media, have faced surprising vocal criticism from a growing number of conservative outlets, both local and national.

“I think they’re shit,” Javier Manjarres, journalist and publisher of The Floridian, a right-leaning outlet based in Fort Lauderdale, told The Daily Beast. The bills’ proposals would affect both local and national outlets and would make sources less inclined to speak to reporters of all political stripes, he added.

“If they say something that maybe isn't completely false but it moves into the gray area, then you use that stuff legitimately as a journalist, but then you can get sued because your source was anonymous,” Manjarres said. “If you started divulging your anonymous sources, then where are we at in society when it comes to journalism?”

Manjarres said the laws would only benefit civil trial attorneys—notably the area of law Andrade specializes in—because of the high costs and extensive time required to fight defamation suits. Those costs could shoot upwards of $20,000, he said, with no guarantee a defendant could ever recoup those expenses

“You’re talking about all this money out the door for what?” Manjarres said. “Because someone filed a lawsuit against you that didn't reach the threshold of malice, but it could be considered negligent or something close to that? Well, it's not malice.”

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The Supreme Court defined “actual malice” in the 1964 landmark case New York Times v. Sullivan as a statement published “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.” The decision was made to limit public officials’ ability to sue media outlets for defamation.

However, Supreme Court Justice Clarance Thomas expressed last year his desire for the court to reexamine that decision, quoting a previous opinion to note the “heavy cost, allowing media organizations and interest groups ‘to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity.’”

News outlets also have other means for course correction, including updating stories containing wrong information with corrections and retractions. Andrade also told Manjarres last year when discussing the previous version of the bill that people can already bring lawsuits involving defamation.

But these bills would lower the threshold of what constitutes defamation, providing a legal avenue for people merely frustrated by a story’s content. That could ultimately limit press freedoms, the New York Post’s editorial board said in an op-ed trashing the legislative effort.

“Conservatives might support such lunacy to get back at the press, but they should realize the law would also make it easier for leftists to sue (or threaten to sue) right-wingers to get them to shut up,” the board wrote last week. “A host of local conservative voices as well as Florida’s solid-red Reps. Byron Donalds and Cory Mills all think it’s a terrible idea. They’re absolutely right. These changes represent a dangerous crackdown on free speech and freedom of the press.”

Andrade defended the bill on Wednesday, brushing off his fellow conservatives’ criticisms.

“Shocking,” Andrade said, according to Florida Politics. “Media outlets and their attorneys are afraid that a bill that protects your reputation and recognizes that your reputation has value, [they] don’t want it to pass.” A week prior, the legislator claimed his critics were reading the bill’s language too broadly.

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Andrade has also sparred with the owner of a local conservative talk radio station who said the bills would be the “death” of right-wing talk by opening on-air personalities to defamation suits. In a contentious text exchange reported by Florida Politics, Andrade called the station owner a “liar” with “embarrassingly wrong” opinions of the bill. This outburst came after the legislator called Rep. Mills, a staunch conservative, an “imbecile” in an X post last year after the federal lawmaker criticized the bills.

Still, Andrade’s defenses have done little to assuage concerns over the bill’s impact. Trey Radel, a former U.S. congressman who hosts a radio show on Fox News Radio, told Fox News that the bill would help liberal lawyers to shut down conservative outlets.

“While certain Republicans may think that they're going to be suing and taking on The New York Times and The Washington Post, here's the breaking news: liberal trial lawyers are going to have a field day with center-right media in the state of Florida,” Radel said. "Signing this into law will destroy conservative media in this state."

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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