Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
- DeSantis has called on the Florida legislature to tighten libel laws.
- He took issue with anonymous sources in stories and suggested he’d make it easier to sue newsrooms.
- He broadcast the comments in a roundtable, held like a news segment, that aired live.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won’t be the Republican to give the party’s response to President Joe Biden’s forthcoming State of the Union Address.
Yet the prominent politician created his own made-for-TV moment intended to grab headlines on Tuesday morning.
Surrounded by cameras in a studio in Hialeah Gardens, a Hispanic-majority community outside Miami, DeSantis held a live broadcast roundtable on “defamation” in the media in which he asked lawyers how Florida could shrink free speech laws to make it easier for people to sue news outlets.
“In Florida, we want to stand up for the little guy against these massive media conglomerates,” DeSantis said before a small seated audience with the words “Speak Truth” spread across a screen behind him.
The governor, who is married to former Jacksonville TV newscaster Casey DeSantis, took on the role of TV reporter himself as he played news clips and questioned six panelists who’d criticized or tangled legally with large corporate outlets.
The broadcast echoed the media ire former President Donald Trump frequently has on display. Yet it appeared to anger the MAGA faithful.
One of the panelists DeSantis invited was Libby Locke, a lawyer who represented Dominion Voting Machines in its defamation lawsuit against MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, whom it accused of spreading false claims about its role in the 2020 election.
DeSantis in introducing Locke called her an “extraordinaire at First Amendment defamation.” The clip circulated on Twitter where Lindell, an avid Trump supporter, expressed his outrage about the event and accused DeSantis of “showing his true colors.”
—Mike Lindell (@realMikeLindell) February 7, 2023
Locke has led other high profile lawsuits, including for the conservative group Project Veritas, an outlet that secretly records liberal targets. She also litigated against Rolling Stone magazine for its retracted reporting about a gang rape at the University of Virginia fraternity and against the New York Times for an editorial about 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
But the panel took place at a time when DeSantis is widely viewed as positioning himself to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, which would pit him against Trump.
The former president has openly criticized the governor — whom he endorsed in 2018 — while DeSantis has hit back with more subliminal messages that have included pointing to his resounding 2022 reelection victory amid Trump-backed losses.
Despite including Locke in Tuesday’s roundtable, DeSantis during the live broadcast did side with Trump in his criticism against the press, specifically over its coverage examining whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the results of the 2016 election.
While DeSantis didn’t use the ex-president’s name, he did invoke Trump’s preferred descriptor when raising the Russian collusion coverage, calling it a “hoax.” No federal investigations on the matter yielded evidence of collusion, and DeSantis on Tuesday took issue with journalists’ allowing sources to share information with them without having their names appear in print.
“To assassinate someone’s character with anonymous sources would have been a total no-no,” DeSantis said of past media practice. “Now it’s the preferred method of being able to deliver content.”
Then-President Donald Trump shakes hands with then-Florida GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis during a campaign rally in Tampa, Fla., on July 31, 2018.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Trump, like DeSantis, became prominent thanks to press coverage
DeSantis’ position on the press is similar to Trump’s, who on several occasions threatened to change libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations and book publishers.
Like Trump, DeSantis often bemoans his media coverage and excoriates what he calls the “corporate press.” DeSantis, however, has become a household name thanks in part to the national media coverage he receives. Ever since his time in Congress he has pushed his aides to have him appear on Fox New Channel, a corporate, top-watched cable network, Insider previously reported.
Last year, DeSantis’ campaign team barred numerous reporters from a fundraiser, and they’ve said on Twitter that they won’t cooperate with press they view as biased. They’ve posted screen shots of press inquiries on Twitter and mocked stories.
DeSantis showcases his adversarial relationship with the press when he holds press conferences throughout Florida. During these sessions, all of which are live streamed, the governor answers wide-ranging questions from reporters even if they are off topic. They serve him in return: One CBS “60 Minutes” response debunking a story about his COVID vaccine rollout went viral.
“They come after me and they do a lot of slander but I fight back,” DeSantis said at Tuesday’s roundtable. “I have a platform to fight back, it’s a lot easier for me.”
Despite raising his tussles with the press, DeSantis insisted non-politicians would be the focus of new libel laws.
The six participants sitting at a newscaster table with the governor included Nicholas Sandmann, who settled for an undisclosed amount with CNN for a defamation lawsuit in 2020. The lawsuit came after a video of him wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat with a Native American activist at an anti-abortion march went viral. Sandmann, who was 16 when the incident occurred, lost lawsuits against other news outlets.
“I didn’t even get the opportunity of a care to comment,” Sandmann said. “What you got was a rush to judgement where they took a 60-second clip from Twitter.”
Others seated on the broadcast were gun rights activist Dennis O’Connor, attorney Vel Freedman, Carson Holloway of the conservative Claremont Institute, and former Vice News correspondent Michael Moynihan.
The governor didn’t say how he would clamp down on the media in Florida, but a draft bill obtained last year by the Orlando Sentinel showed his office suggested changing the criteria for determining whether a false was published with “actual malice,” narrowing the definition of a “public figure,” and presuming that statements from anonymous sources were false.
Under the Supreme Court’s New York Times v. Sullivan decision, a public official must prove a false statement was published “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
The Florida First Amendment Foundation executive director Bobby Block told Insider it didn’t want to comment on the DeSantis event given “the absence of any real moves to reverse legal precedents or introduce new legislation.”
After the event, DeSantis’ office put out a press release calling on the legislature “to protect Floridians from the life-altering ramifications that defamation from the media can cause for a person who does not have the means or the platform to defend himself.”