Susan Estrich: Ron DeSantis is an enemy of free speech
From the commentary: If anchorman Ron DeSantis has his way, freedom (of speech) loses. Liberty loses. And that's not a victory for anyone.
He sat in an anchorman's chair for the publicity stunt, but he is no friend of the free press. With the words "speak truth" flashing behind him, and with guests who had sued The Washington Post and Fox News joining him, the Florida governor and would-be presidential candidate denounced what he called "the leading purveyors of disinformation in our entire society" that is "corporate media."
In fact, DeSantis seems to welcome the support he's received from Fox News hosts, even as he has shunned most of the mainstream media in favor of granting exclusive interviews with right-wing outlets. At the same time, he's trumpeting legislation in Florida aimed at making it easier to sue the media, even as some conservatives have joined with civil libertarians in warning that DeSantis' approach would be the death of talk radio in Florida.
Under the bill that DeSantis is supporting, relying on anonymous sources, frequently necessary in investigative reporting, would be presumed to be false, making it much more difficult to uncover government corruption. Expressing controversial opinions — on all sides of the spectrum — would presumably be more open to litigation.
Conservative? Not necessarily. In fact, conservatives dominate the airwaves, and could easily face the most severe consequences. As the current lawsuits against Fox News make clear, it is not only the so-called liberal media that is in the crosshairs these days, and the threats to free expression come from all directions.
DeSantis and his supporters claim that it is nearly impossible for "the little guy" to bring a defamation action. That is simply not so. In fact, if it's impossible for anyone, it's for public figures, who face a much tougher standard under the First Amendment, and must show actual malice, defined as reckless disregard for the truth, in order to prevail in a defamation claim. When a public figure brings suit, it's not enough that the statement is false and that it causes injury to reputation, even if intentional.
Critics on both sides have sounded the alarm about what's being proposed in Florida. "A death knell for American traditions of free speech," was the response of the First Amendment Foundation. James Schwartz, the owner of a Florida talk radio station that broadcasts Sean Hannity's show, among others, told The Washington Post that the bill working its way to DeSantis' desk would be "the death of conservative talk throughout the state of Florida" and would cost Republicans "one of their most prominent platforms to reach their base forever."
Whether conservatives or liberals stand to lose the most is almost beside the point. The right answer to bad reporting is not more lawsuits but more reporting and better reporting. Recent years have seen an explosive growth of conservative media, especially conservative talk radio, not to mention cable news. In fact, it is only big corporate media that can afford to defend itself against libel lawsuits, and the smaller outlets that will be driven out of business by laws that make them easier to sue.
At the end of the day, this should not be a partisan issue. DeSantis may see this as a winning issue for him in the Republican primaries, but that is a short-sighted approach. If anchorman Ron DeSantis has his way, freedom loses. Liberty loses. And that's not a victory for anyone.
This Susan Estrich commentary is her opinion. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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