In Blow to DeSantis, Florida Bills to Limit Press Protections Are Shelved

Legislation that would have sharply curbed press protections in Florida has stalled in the State Legislature and won’t face a vote this year — a rare example of forces on the right thwarting a piece of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s agenda.

The bills, introduced in February, proposed sweeping changes to laws that shield media outlets from liability in defamation cases and sought to make it easier for private citizens to file libel suits. Mr. DeSantis has been outspoken in advocating for laws he says would “hold these big media companies accountable.”

But Mr. DeSantis, a Republican typically known for having his finger on the pulse of the right, appears to have misjudged the issue. In addition to opposition from news outlets and free-speech groups, the legislation faced a wave of resistance from his allies, including right-wing media outlets, Christian organizations and business groups. They argued that the legislation would harm all news media, including conservative outlets, and lead to an increase in frivolous and costly lawsuits.

The Florida bills were part of a broader effort to revisit the First Amendment protections for the media. In recent years, a collection of judges, politicians and lawyers — most of them conservatives — have fiercely criticized The New York Times Company v. Sullivan, the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1964 that made it more difficult for public figures to win libel cases against publishers.

Their stance gained fresh attention as Dominion Voting Systems pursued its lawsuit against Fox News. A last-minute settlement of that case two weeks ago put off a high-profile test of the bounds of that precedent. The quiet demise of the closely watched Florida legislation, which would have been challenged in court, appears to have blocked another.

The legislation would narrow the definition of who qualifies as a public figure, automatically presume that statements by anonymous sources are false and define certain types of speech as libelous, among other measures.

Florida’s annual legislative session ends Friday, and, barring late changes or a special session, neither bill will see a full floor vote in 2023.

The sponsor of the House bill, State Representative Alex Andrade, said he did not expect his bill to get out of committee: “We need to focus on finalizing our budgets and more time-sensitive stuff,” he said.

Victoria Mohebpour, an aide to the Senate bill’s sponsor, Senator Jason Brodeur, said that although “the governor clearly expressed interest in this type of legislation,” the proposal faltered because “philosophically some people didn’t agree with it.”

The demise of the bills stands out as a rare legislative blow for Mr. DeSantis, who, as he prepares to run for president, has successfully pushed an aggressive agenda on abortion, gun laws, the death penalty, union restrictions and immigration through the Florida legislature this year. But in the case of the defamation bills, it was Mr. DeSantis’s boosters in the media who showed their muscle.

“The minute conservative media outlets started catching wind of this it was stopped real quick,” said Javier Manjarres, the publisher of The Floridian, a conservative site that is usually supportive of the governor’s agenda. Last month, he wrote an article that said the legislation would be “an irreparable self-inflicted political wound” if Mr. DeSantis were to sign it.

“They were trying to hit the liberal media and didn’t realize it would be a boomerang that would come back around right at them,” said Brendon Leslie, the editor in chief of Florida’s Voice, a digital outlet that is favored by Mr. DeSantis. He and others worried that the legislation, if passed, would encourage lawsuits that could put many conservative publications out of business.

Mr. Leslie sparred on Twitter with Mr. Andrade over the legislation.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative nonprofit, and the Better Business Bureau also signaled their opposition to the legislation, claiming the bills would lead to an avalanche of nuisance litigation that could increase insurance rates and cause endless headaches for business interests.

Anthony Sabatini, a former Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives who said he supported the bills, believed the pressure from right-wing news media was critical.

“I saw legislators being attacked by conservative media influencers,” Mr. Sabatini said. “Republican leadership was being attacked from the right and left, from all sides. That killed it.”

A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis did not answer questions about the legislation, instead referring to a round-table discussion on defamation that he hosted early in February, saying that it represented “the governor’s position on the subject matter of media accountability.”

In that event, Mr. DeSantis called for a complete overhaul of press shields, including overturning the Sullivan precedent..

“It’s our view in Florida that we want to be standing up for the little guy against some of these massive media conglomerates,” Mr. DeSantis said at the time.

In early 2022, the governor’s top legislative aide circulated proposed draft legislation that included many of the same provisions as the bills introduced this year.

Mr. Andrade, a trial lawyer with a private practice in Pensacola, Fla., said he intended to file a revised version of the bill when the Legislature returned for its next session early next year.

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