DeSantis’ fight against media defamation could hit conservatives hardest, critic claims

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hosted a roundtable discussion on Tuesday that appears to have made members of the liberal-leaning legacy media nervous enough to suddenly care about the First Amendment.

The topic of the panel was “the damaging impacts of defamation from the legacy media as it becomes a more prevalent issue in the lives of everyday citizens,” according to a statement from the office of the governor.

“We’ve seen over the last generation legacy media outlets increasingly divorce themselves from the truth and instead try to elevate preferred narratives and partisan activism over reporting the facts,” DeSantis said. “When the media attacks me, I have a platform to fight back. When they attack everyday citizens, these individuals don’t have the adequate recourses to fight back. In Florida, we want to stand up for the little guy against these massive media conglomerates.”

Included on the panel were Nick Sandmann of Covington Catholic High School fame; former Secretary of the Board of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, Dennis O’Connor; Carson Holloway, a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life; Michael Moynihan, co-host of the Fifth Column Podcast; and legal experts Devin “Velvel” Freedman, a founding partner at Freedman, Normand, Friedland, LLP, and Elizabeth “Libby” Locke, a partner at Clare, Locke LLP.

“Current law does not provide adequate protection for everyday Floridians to protect themselves from defamatory or libelous speech by news organizations,” claims DeSantis’s office.

With that in mind, the panel discussed the First Amendment protections granted to media outlets in the United States and how to “hold these big media companies accountable for their actionable lies.”

“When you’re knowingly putting out false information — and, indeed, I’d say these companies are probably the leading purveyors of disinformation in our entire society right now — there needs to be an ability for people to defend themselves, not through government regulation or restriction, but through being able to seek private right of action,” DeSantis said.

Under the hotly contested Section 230 protections, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are shielded from lawsuits over content that is posted by their users, but, as “The Twitter Files” has revealed, those platforms have been censoring conservatives while allowing false stories that favor liberals to circulate unchallenged.

Such was the case with Sandmann, who was vilified in the press after a video of him at 16 years old, simply smiling at a Native American activist went viral. The teen, who was wearing a MAGA cap, was called a racist bully, while the facts later showed he was exercising remarkable control when the activist got in his face.

He is now a millionaire, thanks to settlements with major media outlets.

“In my case, I didn’t have any reputation to ruin. I didn’t have any kind of career,” Sandmann said. “I didn’t even get the opportunity of a ‘care to comment.’ What you got was a rush to judgment where they took a 60-second clip from Twitter. They wanted to be the first one with the story. I would say it was the most difficult period of my life. They predetermined what the rest of my future was going to look like.”

But of bigger concern to outlets such as Mediaite was a question from DeSantis on whether the Supreme Court should revisit New York Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 ruling that said a media outlet must know their statements are either false or display a “reckless disregard” for the truth before they can be found liable for defaming a public figure.

“The case that Governor DeSantis and his ideological allies would like to overrule is the most important ruling relating to freedom of the press in the country’s history,” First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams — father of Mediaite founder Dan Abrams — said. “It protects writers and speakers across the ideological spectrum when they err non-intentionally in covering public figures.”

In an opinion piece for Mediaite, Aidan McLaughlin argues that if DeSantis’s suggestion were taken to heart, he would be shooting himself in the foot, as it would be conservative news stations such as Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN that would suffer.

“The irony of DeSantis’s criticism of US free speech protections is that conservative outlets he favors would be the first to face severe consequences if the actual malice standard was overturned,” McLaughlin writes.

Those stations, he notes, “have showered DeSantis in positive coverage and in turn been granted exclusive interviews with the Republican Party star” and they “are all facing serious defamation lawsuits over false claims about the 2020 election.”

“First Amendment lawyers and experts point out instead that weakening those protections would open up the press to an all-out war from powerful people with the means to silence criticism and stifle scrutiny,” McLaughlin claims.

“Punishing the press is a universal impulse on the right and key to its politics,” he states. “But leaders like DeSantis may find paying anything more than lip service to that impulse threatens conservative media just as much, if not more than the mainstream press.”



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