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A committee of Floridas House voted on Tuesday to recommend moving forward with a controversial bill reforming defamation law that First Amendment advocates decried to the legislators as representing a death knell for American traditions of free speech. 

At a hearing at the Capitol in Tallahassee, the Civil Justice Subcommittee voted in favor of moving ahead with HB 991 despite fears that it could chill press freedoms and public debate. All 13 Republicans and one Democrat on the committee voted to advance the bill, while the four other Democrat members voted against it. 

The bills author, Republican state Rep. Alex Andrade, told the committee that it would not change the legal elements of defamation, which require that a person falsely assert a fact and not a mere opinion that then causes harm to another persons reputation.

As one of my favorite people to listen to, Ben Shapiro, always says, Facts don’t care about your feelings, Andrade told the committee. You’re entitled to your statements of opinion. You’re entitled to your personal subjective viewpoints. This bill doesn’t change that.

But a dozen members of the public including defense attorneys, free press advocates, and LGBTQ activists all rose to speak against the bill, warning that it likely contravenes long-standing Supreme Court precedent designed to shield news media if they make mistakes while reporting on public officials in the name of protecting a vigorous public discourse.

We think the overall bill is really an attack on all speech not just media, but citizens as well, Samuel Morley, general counsel for the Florida Press Association, told the committee.

The bill violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, it likely violates Florida’s constitution, and it sets troubling public policy, said Carol LoCicero, a Tampa-based attorney who has defended clients in defamation cases. The First Amendment issues are severe.

HB 991 weaponizes defamation law to the point that it represents a death knell for American traditions of free speech, said Bobby Block, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation. If HB 991 becomes law, its provisions will be used to try to crush critics of government policy.

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