DeSantis’ War on Florida’s Press Is Designed to Hit Nationwide

DeSantis is actively trying to legally neuter the free press, in the same way he is trying to destroy academic freedom in his own state.

The post DeSantis’ War on Florida’s Press Is Designed to Hit Nationwide appeared first on FAIR.


The Hill: DeSantis steps up attacks on media

The Hill (10/10/22) reported that DeSantis “has surged in recent national polls, propelled by his willingness to position himself at the epicenter of the culture wars.”

One reason why Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is a hot contender (CBS, 2/27/23; SunSentinel, 2/27/23; AP, 2/27/23) for the Republican presidential nomination is his constant war with the media, framing himself as an everyman trying to fix the state’s problems against elite critics who stymie him at every turn. He has also gained a reputation as a bully who wants to use his political might to silence criticism of his administration in the press.

Twitter suspended the governor’s press secretary for “violating rules on ‘abusive behavior’” after the AP (8/20/21) said the official’s “conduct led to [an AP] reporter receiving threats and other online abuse.” Last year, DeSantis displayed his combativeness when he accused a reporter of creating “false narratives” when he was questioned about his anti-gay speech codes during a press conference (Twitter, 3/7/22).

He told a local right-wing website (Florida Voice, 10/4/22; quoted in The Hill, 10/10/22) that “regime media”—a funny term coming from the head of a state “regime”—were cheering for Hurricane Ian to destroy Florida:

They don’t care about the people of this state. They don’t care about this community. They want to use storms and destruction from storms as a way to advance their agenda.

In Ian’s aftermath, DeSantis bit back at a CNN reporter who questioned his storm response policies (Fox News, 10/2/22).

Most recently, his office (Independent, 2/23/23) said his staff “will not take questions from NBC News or MSNBC until host Andrea Mitchell apologizes for misrepresenting [the governor’s] bans on books about Black history.” Rupert Murdoch’s media empire (New York Post, 12/15/22, 2/2/23, 2/15/23; Fox News, 1/27/23, 2/22/23, 2/23/23) has been eager to cheer on DeSantis’ war against the press.

Making journalists easier to sue

Politico:DeSantis wants to roll back press freedoms — with an eye toward overturning Supreme Court ruling

A proposed Florida bill (Politico, 2/23/23) would, among other things, declare that “comments made by anonymous sources are presumed false for the purposes of defamation lawsuits”—and remove protections from journalists who decline to reveal their sources.

The trick of executives projecting their policy mishaps on the press is as old as politics itself. But DeSantis is far more dangerous than your average governor, not just because he is seeking the presidency, but because he is actively trying to legally neuter the free press in the same way he is trying to destroy academic freedom and freedom of speech in his own state. And he could win, because he has much of the conservative movement behind him.

The Florida state legislature is considering a bill that seeks “sweeping changes to Florida’s libel and defamation law,” the Orlando Sentinel (2/21/23) reported. It would presume “information from anonymous sources to be false and removes protections that allow journalists to shield the identity of sources if they are sued.” And the bill “limits the definition of who would qualify as a public figure,” which means that more people would be able to sue news outlets without having to show that the outlets displayed a reckless disregard for the truth.

Politico (2/23/23) noted that “beyond making it easier to sue journalists, the proposal is also being positioned to spark a larger legal battle with the goal of eventually overturning New York Times v. Sullivan,” the 1964 Supreme Court decision “that limits public officials’ ability to sue publishers for defamation.”

DeSantis expressed his disdain for the Sullivan standard at a round-table discussion about the media in February (2/7/23): “When the media attacks me, I have a platform to fight back. When they attack everyday citizens, these individuals don’t have the adequate recourse to fight back.” Telegraphing his legislative ambitions, he added, “In Florida, we want to stand up for the little guy against these massive media conglomerates.”

This is absolutely backward. The Sullivan rule doesn’t offer the media protection against lawsuits from Joe Taxpayer, but it does offer protection from partisan leaders, as the Sullivan standard forces public figures to show a court that a publisher acted with “actual malice” in order for a libel suit to stand (Washington Post, 2/15/23). Eliminating Sullivan doesn’t offer the “little guy” anything.

And while he targets “massive media conglomerates,” ending the Sullivan standard would be especially harmful for local and independent media. The New York Times (3/1/22) has a legal team that can combat defamation suits , but do smaller outlets like Common Dreams or Hell Gate stand a chance?

Conservative quarry

American Conservative: Overturn New York Times v. Sullivan

The American Conservative (9/9/22) argues that “the public needs accurate information about the candidates for public office”—and therefore government officials need to be able to sue reporters if they don’t like how they’re being depicted in the press.

Two years ago, I warned FAIR’s audience (3/26/21) about the conservative movement’s targeting of Sullivan, as late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—as well as current Justice Clarence Thomas and the US Court of Appeals’ Lawrence Silberman—expressed their hostility to the Sullivan standard. Surely, if this bill is passed and signed into law in Florida, it will face a legal challenge; if that challenge goes to the Supreme Court, there’s very little reason to think that the 6–3 conservative majority that just struck down Roe v. Wade thinks striking down Sullivan is a bridge too far.

The threat against Sullivan has intensified since my 2021 warning. At the February round-table discussion, Carson Holloway of the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life said:

The thumb seems to be on the scale for the media in these lawsuits, and that’s because of what the Supreme Court did in New York Times v. Sullivan back in 1964. That case changed the standards under which libel cases are heard in modern America…. If we go back to the Founders, we are reminded that people have a right to their reputation. Reputation is a right as precious as one’s property, one’s life, one’s liberty, so another fundamental purpose of American law is to protect rights. The actual malice standard is an invention of the Supreme Court inconsistent with the way the Founders thought about libel and freedom of speech.

The American Conservative (9/9/22) also called for the high court to overturn Sullivan, as it is “a typical product of the Warren Court—probably the most activist and least originalist Court in the nation’s history.” This is a swipe at the one era of the court’s history, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, marked by progress for civil rights and civil liberties, with decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia. The magazine complained, “It is nearly impossible to prove actual malice.”

Most ominously, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch (New York Times, 7/2/21) said the Court must revisit the doctrine, “suggesting that the actual malice doctrine might have made more sense” in 1964, “when there were fewer and more reliable sources of news.”

In other words, DeSantis is flanked by conservative legal theorists, activists and sitting jurists who are licking their chops at the prospect of cutting down Sullivan. This would be catastrophic for free expression. Corporate tycoons and politicians could use lawsuits to bankrupt and cripple news outlets with costly litigation, and editors would constantly think twice about publishing critical reporting on powerful people out of fear of litigation. Government figures and big business would essentially have more control over what can be printed or aired.

War on academia

Chronicle of Higher Education: DeSantis' Terrifying Plot Against Higher Ed

Keith Whittington (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/27/23): “Florida is breaking new ground in insisting that state universities convey the government’s favored message in its classes.”

In taking on Sullivan, DeSantis is opening a new front in a culture war he has long waged against academics in his state. The state has “deployed a controversial survey on campus ideological diversity to public college and university students, faculty and staff members,” a move some faculty have called “a political litmus test since it was first proposed” (Inside Higher Ed, 4/5/22).

DeSantis has asked “state universities for the number and ages of their students who sought gender dysphoria treatment, including sex reassignment surgery and hormone prescriptions” (AP, 1/18/23).

A new Florida bill would bar “funds from being used for diversity, equity and inclusion programs, as well as critical race theory–related programs, on college campuses,” and “would also remove diversity, equity and inclusion efforts or policies that impact hiring practices” (ABC, 2/23/23). Even sillier, one Florida proposal would “ban ‘unproven’ or ‘theoretical’ content from general-education courses, which might banish Plato and Albert Einstein to elective courses.” according to the Chronicle for Higher Education (2/27/23), which added that Florida is a trailblazer for “higher-education reforms,” while “Republican-leaning states are likely to follow its lead.”

For DeSantis and a great deal of the American right, academics and journalists are partners in the same ideological war: They make up a disloyal intelligentsia that uses professional stature to sow doubt about the political establishment, challenge traditional cultural orders and threaten the power of big business. If DeSantis has come this far waging a war against academia in his own state, there is no reason why he wouldn’t take this war to the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

Sullivan and civil rights

Heed Their Rising Voices

The Supreme Court ruled in Sullivan v. New York Times that a Montgomery, Alabama, police official could not sue over minor inaccuracies in an advertisement that asserted that “Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimidation and violence.”

It should not be forgotten, also, that Sullivan was a civil rights case: an Alabama police commander had brought a libel suit against the Times for an advertisement by civil rights activists that mischaracterized the role of his officers. Samantha Barbas—a professor at SUNY Buffalo’s School of Law and author of Actual Malice, a book about the Sullivan case—wrote (UC Press Blog, 12/20/22):

In the 1960s, segregationist officials in the South weaponized libel law in a campaign to undermine liberal Northern newspapers that criticized segregation. Their objective was to halt coverage of the civil rights movement, reporting that would prove crucial to forging national support for desegregation and civil rights.

DeSantis’ war on press freedom—in the context of his campaign to censor Black authors (PEN America, 2/13/23) and attacks on “wokeness” (Guardian, 2/5/23), a word that has its origins in Black awareness of racial injustice—is the living legacy of Jim Crow–era Southern governors who did everything they could to maintain racial apartheid.

As faculty and students fight Florida’s war on campuses, journalists who value their freedom to report and opine must also oppose this assault on media. If DeSantis wins, it won’t just impact Florida, it will impact the whole country.

The post DeSantis’ War on Florida’s Press Is Designed to Hit Nationwide appeared first on FAIR.

This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Ari Paul.

Print Share Comment Cite Upload Translate Updates

Leave a Reply

Ari Paul | Radio Free (2023-05-28T17:09:25+00:00) » DeSantis’ War on Florida’s Press Is Designed to Hit Nationwide. Retrieved from
" » DeSantis’ War on Florida’s Press Is Designed to Hit Nationwide." Ari Paul | Radio Free - Wednesday March 1, 2023,
Ari Paul | Radio Free Wednesday March 1, 2023 » DeSantis’ War on Florida’s Press Is Designed to Hit Nationwide., viewed 2023-05-28T17:09:25+00:00,<>
Ari Paul | Radio Free - » DeSantis’ War on Florida’s Press Is Designed to Hit Nationwide. [Internet]. [Accessed 2023-05-28T17:09:25+00:00]. Available from:
" » DeSantis’ War on Florida’s Press Is Designed to Hit Nationwide." Ari Paul | Radio Free - Accessed 2023-05-28T17:09:25+00:00.
" » DeSantis’ War on Florida’s Press Is Designed to Hit Nationwide." Ari Paul | Radio Free [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 2023-05-28T17:09:25+00:00]
» DeSantis’ War on Florida’s Press Is Designed to Hit Nationwide | Ari Paul | Radio Free | | 2023-05-28T17:09:25+00:00
To access this feature you must login or create an account.