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A Florida House panel okays a bill making it easier to sue journalists

A man stands behind a camera, looking at the recording
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A man stands behind a camera, looking at the recording

Over warnings of potentially being unconstitutional and un-American, a Florida House committee has advanced a bill that would make it easier for journalists and their media outlets to be sued. Sponsors argue there needs to be a greater check on the press amid the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation. But bill critics say lawmakers have the wrong approach.

Former state Rep. Dick Batchelor has worn many hats: lobbyist. Advocate. Presidential appointee. One of his most formative experiences was serving in the marines during the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive.

“We’ve heard this quote around Tallahassee, that ‘Freedom is worth fighting for. ' I believe that now, I believed it when I volunteered to go overseas. I believed it in my class on Americanism vs. Communism. And since that time I’ve had opportunities to host delegations," he said, noting that those delegations have come from places like Romania, China, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

For Batchelor, a proposal that would make it easier for media outlets to face defamation lawsuits hits at a fundamental American right—one that separates this country from the dictatorships elsewhere.

“And when you get the delegations aside from everyone else, where Big Brother can’t hear them, they want to know about Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press.”

House bill 991 By Pensacola Rep. Alex Andrade builds upon criticisms that the media—specifically journalists—have gone too far afield of their mission to seek the truth. Jacksonville Republican Rep. Toby Oberdorf has felt the sting of bad journalism firsthand. He was targeted by the lobby group Matrix—which has Florida Power & Light as a client. An investigation from NPR and Floodlight revealed a now-former ABC news producer was paid by Matrix to do a hit piece on Overdorf.

“Other reports picked up on it. It hurt me financially, from my consulting standpoint. And it wasn’t until I was approached by another reporter from NPR and Floodlight, that the entire incident was cleared up."

But until then, says Oberdorf, "I had no recourse against this reporter."

Those situations are rare. What has media outlets concerned is that Andrade’s bill could turn into a legal free-for-all, full of frivolous lawsuits against journalists for saying something someone else doesn’t like. Joe Cohn with the free speech group FIRE told a largely Republican panel they should be careful what they wish for.

“You might have noticed that you’re a chatty bunch. You say things critical of each other. You say things critical of the issues. You’re particularly susceptible to defamation suits. So, lowering the bar on what it takes to lose them is not going to be helpful to you all in the long run, "he said.

“People say this could be weaponized against conservatives and I think it can be and probably should be," said Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Riverview.

“Stupid and false commentary is not something the left has a monopoly on.

The bill cleared its first committee stop in the House with more to come.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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