Speak up, Floridians, before the Legislature takes away our right to speak freely | Opinion

We are being silenced in Florida, with dangerous legislation making its way through the state Legislature that could stifle the ability of everyday Floridians to speak freely.

House Bill 991 and the companion bill Senate Bill 1220 would dramatically change our state’s defamation laws and allow for monetary judgments when elected officials or others think they’ve been slighted on social media or in critical press reports.

By doing away with the long-held standard of proving actual malice or ill intent in a defamation case, Florida would be inviting frivolous lawsuits to proliferate and arming elected officials and others with the ability to silence outspoken critics.

If these bills pass, Florida’s news outlets, already reeling from drastic reductions in the number of working journalists in the state, may be less likely to pursue critical coverage of how our state is being run for fear of getting entangled in expensive and draining litigation.

The legislation goes far beyond just threatening journalists. Everyday Floridians could be targeted by a lawsuit for posting controversial takes on social media or even a neighborhood Listserv.

Public discourse itself is at stake in the Sunshine State that, paradoxically, long has been heralded for strong public-records, open-meeting and government-transparency laws.

This terrifying attempt to restrict our free speech is not occurring in a vacuum. It is in addition to the many other ways we’ve seen our basic freedoms fall under attack in Florida.

This session, there is also legislation to narrow the types of public records available to Floridians, while the DeSantis administration has significantly slowed responses to public records requests from journalists and other citizens alike.

And, as of March 1, new rules at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee restrict citizen protests and demonstrations.

Teachers and college professors are also being muzzled, with repeated attempts to curtail teaching Black history and public school teachers barred from discussing issues important to LGBTQ+ students and families.

Meanwhile, our ability to freely cast a ballot has been severely hampered with unnecessary, confusing and discriminatory restrictions on the voting process, as well as maps that intentionally dilute the voting power of Black Floridians.

We at Common Cause Florida are sounding the alarm on the dangers of this defamation bill. It is another attack on public discourse in Florida. We are joined in our opposition from all corners of the political spectrum. Civil-rights groups, such as the ACLU of Florida, press advocacy organizations, such as the Florida First Amendment Foundation and conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity, all have come out to say how dangerous these bills are.

Our opposition stems from shared concerns that Florida is charting a dangerous course where only some opinions and viewpoints would be deemed acceptable, and all others would be subject to censorship.

We urge every Floridian to speak out against this brazen attempt to restrict our free speech — before it’s too late to have our say.

Amy Keith is the program director for Common Cause Florida, a nonpartisan democracy reform organization with more than 90,000 members in the state.