Despite Protests, Florida Bill HB 991 Will Not Negatively Affect Freedom of Speech or Press

As I always do when writing an article, I go right to the source and don’t simply accept what other people write. I just finished reading HB 991 and did not draw the same conclusions as the opponents of the bill. The reason for its proposal is very clear. People, including individuals and those from the press, have been weaponizing language in order to silence their opposition. For example, anyone who doesn’t think that transgender females should compete against biological females is labeled transphobic. The attacks are relentless even though, not necessarily true. There’s no law against that of course but this law will limit the hurling of accusations that unfairly hurt someone’s reputation. In 1844, Alexander William Kinglake, in his Eothen, published the proverb, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.” Mr. Kinglake didn’t know that more than a century later, social media, would bring new meaning to the power of words.

It’s already been established that people can’t tell someone that their life is meaningless, and they should kill themselves, without repercussions, should someone actually do so. Nor can someone yell fire in a crowded movie theatre, which could cause a panic and result in injuries or death. While I’m a hardcore supporter of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, like so many other things in our lives, there need to be limits, regulations, and guidelines. For too long, the press has been able to make accusations without repercussions by simply stating that they were told information by legitimate, anonymous sources. The anonymous, frees the writer from any repercussions no matter the consequences on the intended target. While some may agree with that, it does set up a very dangerous precedent. We can’t allow people’s lives and reputations to be tarnished or destroyed by those with a vendetta, in the name of free speech. This is especially true today with the inundation of social media platforms.

HB 991 clarifies “defamation standards.” Specifically, it states, “A fact finder shall infer actual malice for the purpose of a defamation action when: The defamatory allegation is fabricated by the defendant, is the product of his or her imagination, or is based wholly on an unverified anonymous report.” What this bill seeks to accomplish is the reigning in of some reporters who are so emotionally involved in an issue that they’re guided more by their emotions than by the facts. The bill speaks to this specifically when it states on line 126 that, “there are obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of a report when: there is sufficient contrary evidence that was known or should have known to the defendant after a reasonable investigation.” Of course, “reasonable investigation” needs to be defined. But the law is basically saying that don’t make allegations that can’t be corroborated or substantiated.

There are two provisions in the same section of the bill that specifically speaks to gender and sexual orientation, which is why the LGBTQ community is protesting the bill. It states, in (2) (a) “a defendant cannot prove the truth of an allegation of discrimination with respect to sexual orientation or gender identity by citing a plaintiff’s constitutionally protected expression or belief.” It continues to spell out those protections in (2) (b) “a defendant cannot prove the truth of an allegation of discrimination with respect to sexual orientation or gender identity by citing a plaintiff’s scientific beliefs.” Essentially, these two provisions, involve religious expression and scientific beliefs. For example, a person or group cannot attempt to defame someone or make allegations of discrimination if the person in question objects to baking a cake for a gay couple based on his or her religious beliefs, or someone who states that there are only 2 genders, based on science. What you believe depends entirely on whether you’re a liberal or conservative. There is no “correct” answer. It remains to be seen whether or not this bill will stand up to scrutiny and past U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Samuel Morley, the general counsel of the Florida Press Association, said, “we think the overall bill is really an attack on all speech – not just the media but citizens as well.” By saying that, he hopes to build public support by claiming that we’re all in this together. It’s a good strategy but not accurate. This bill will not make it any more likely for an individual to be sued for libel or slander than prior to the bill’s introduction. But it does make it more likely for accusers who make unfounded accusations to be sued. And certainly, they are less protected.

Bobby Block, executive director of the Florida First Amendment foundation, claims, “HB 991 weaponizes defamation law to the point that it represents a death knell for American traditions of free speech. If HB 991 becomes law, its provisions will be used to try to crush critics of government policy.” There is absolutely no justification in that statement unless you’re on his side. He’s presenting his opinion from a very liberal perspective, which defines politics I suppose. Since the bill was unanimously passed with all Republicans and one Democrat, they obviously don’t see it that way. Governor DeSantis will sign it if and when, it reaches his desk. Republicans see it as a protection against frivolous allegations, meaning that if accusations are made, they need to be made without frivolity. The Democrats’ strategy in our current landscape, is to defeat your political enemies by demonizing them. Unfortunately, at least in Florida, that’s a losing strategy.

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