Editorial Roundup: Florida

Miami Herald. February 19, 2024.

Editorial: Florida anti-free speech bill targets ‘liberal media’ but guess who’s really mad at it?

There are no lessons learned in the Florida Legislature.

Last year, lawmakers, prodded by their hostility toward the “liberal media,” tried to pass a bill to make it easier to sue for defamation. Back then, it was conservative media owners who feared this “let’s own the libs” measure had adverse effects.

Corporate media — a term of choice for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who supported the legislation — have resources to fight expensive lawsuits. Small local radio stations and online publications — and your local Rush Limbaughs who might get too loose with facts — do not.

The measure is back this year in a different version. A strange coalition of liberal-leaning groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and libertarian Americans for Prosperity, founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, is fighting against it. Even the Better Business Bureau — the apolitical nonprofit known for rating businesses and publishing customer complaints — opposes it.

House Bill 757 is an affront to free speech and probably unconstitutional, a mechanism for public figures to silence negative coverage with the threat of litigation. Sponsor Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, says he wants to hold people accountable for publishing false information. But his bill clearly goes much further.

In a nutshell, HB 757 would lower the bar for filing defamation lawsuits. That bar was set in the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan. To win a libel case, a public figure must prove “actual malice” — that the statement about them was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.”

This standard was meant to protect public debate even if someone publishes information that contains errors.

Andrade’s bill would automatically assume malice if a statement about a public figure is proven false — no matter how small the error — and it came from one anonymous source. Could this force journalists to decide between revealing their anonymous sources, and potentially endangering them, or facing legal ramifications?

Perhaps the strongest rebuke to the legislation came from a grilling Andrade got by a known conservative radio host on Monday. As Trey Radel, a former GOP congressman, said, the impact on anonymous sources would create “a chilling effect out there for the next person who wants to expose the (Department of Justice, FBI and IRS),” the USA Today Network reported.

The bill also would force publishers of information into a “veracity hearing,” where they would have to prove their statements are truthful.

Those hearings would happen within 60 days of a motion being filed, giving defendants little time to prepare and forcing them to spend larger amounts of money to defend themselves, which could force smaller news operations or individuals who post something on social media into bankruptcy, Bobby Block, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, told the Herald Editorial Board.

HB 757 would also allow public figures to go “court shopping” by allowing libel suits based on materials posted online to be filed in any court in the state. That means a Democratic official could sue a conservative broadcaster in more liberal Broward County, and a Republican could drag a liberal publication to a court in the conservative Panhandle.

As The Better Business Bureau wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to legislative leaders, an unscrupulous business unhappy with its ratings could force BBBs to “rush to court in remote jurisdictions without sufficient time for investigation and discovery.”

Andrade contends it’s already against the law to sue people for simply exercising their free-speech rights. But his critics point out that by lowering defamation standards, the legislation weakens such protections against baseless lawsuits. The Better Business Bureau wrote thatthe veracity hearings might allow plaintiffs to “escape the burden of establishing” a good faith basis for their claim.

What is the purpose of this legislation then, other than to allow public figures to quash information they don’t like?

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Orlando Sentinel. February 19, 2024.

Editorial: Children shouldn’t be exploited as cheap labor

The history of this nation is regrettably rife with stories of children being exploited, exhausted, injured and robbed of their educational potential by employers who saw them as little more than commodities.

For all too brief a time, Florida leaders viewed that as a bad thing. They voted, often overwhelmingly, for laws that were even stronger than federal protections. Now, however, this state’s lawmakers appear eager to join other states that are abandoning those safeguards one by one. At the start of the 2024 legislative session, a quartet of bills that would tear gaping holes in Florida’s child labor laws drew gasps of outrage at their audacity: One proposed change ( HB 49 / SB 1596 ) would have initially allowed children as young as 14 to be recruited into long hours and backbreaking labor in Florida’s restaurants, farms and other businesses. It still strips many of those protections from 16- and 17-year-olds. Another pair of bills ( HB 917 / SB 460 ) would knock down safety barriers that keep teenagers out of inherently dangerous work sites, including construction.

Many draw a line connecting this Dickensian trend to a crackdown on unauthorized immigration, pulling children into jobs once performed by the undocumented workers who are disappearing under punitive new laws and swaggering threats. That’s part of it, but we see an uglier narrative here: Across the nation, states are rolling back child-protection on many critical issues, including the right to a free public education, access to health care and other protections that elevate children’s needs simply because they are children.

Kids in Laborland

It’s hard to find a better example of this than the repeal of child-labor laws. As the bills made their way through committees in the House and Senate, only a handful of child-welfare advocates, such as the Orlando-based Florida Policy Institute, even took them seriously.

There have been amendments, but in their current form, all four bills represent significant, and hazardous, erosions of protective laws and greatly increase the likelihood that children will be enticed (or even forced) to lose their focus on schoolwork to meet the demands of their employers, or the needs of their families.

And any step backward will meet a larger goal, throwing decades of hard-won victories on behalf of child safety into reverse. Once the new direction is set, it will be far easier to pick away at provisions protecting young workers in subsequent sessions.

There’s only one bright spot here: As the bills were amended, the House and Senate versions picked up substantial differences. Now that the House has given its final approval to both, that puts their fate into the hands of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo. She has three choices: She could put her leaders to work reconciling the bills. Or she could let them quietly languish without fanfare, preserving it as a last minute bargaining chip.

Or she could take a stronger stand. The Senate leader has to know the truth: These bills are unlikely to affect the children of affluent families, but stripping protections away will deepen the desperation for low income parents caught between skyrocketing costs and stagnant pay. Forced to grab any lifeline just to stay afloat, they may not realize that the rope is wrapped around their own children’s necks.

So we plead with Passidomo: Be the champion those families need. Reject any chance that these bills will make it through the Senate — and publicly rebuke the possibility that any Florida parent would be forced to bargain away their children’s best shot at a bright future in exchange for survival today.

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Palm Beach Post. February 14, 2024.

Editorial: Will Parkland shooting anniversary bring better Florida gun laws? Not likely.

Six years ago, a 19-year-old gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, took out an AR-15 and opened fire. The 100 shots resulted in the murder of 17 students, faculty and staff, and wounded another 17. The shooting put Parkland on the map for all the wrong reasons and left Florida with an indelible stain of gun violence.

The state’s response? Then-Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature enacted big changes for the so-called “Gunshine State.” They raised the legal age of purchasing a firearm to 21, banned bump stocks, enacted “red flag” laws that allowed firearms to be confiscated, and required three-day waiting periods for gun purchases. The new laws helped, although the need to further strengthen gun safety seemed so obvious.

On the anniversary of a national tragedy ― not to mention the continuation of gun violence with this week’s shootings at the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl celebration and the Palm Beach Gardens Mall — you’d think Florida lawmakers would get the message.

Think again.

HB 1223, legislation moving in the Florida House, would roll back the age to buy a firearm to 18. There are also HB 17 and SB 1124, which would allow firearm purchases to go forward if background checks aren’t completed within three days. While firearms can be displayed in certain settings, like camp sites and gun ranges, open carry is still illegal in Florida but that hasn’t stopped enthusiasts from lobbying lawmakers in Tallahassee to consider a change to make that legal. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who pushed lawmakers to allow people to carry firearms without gun permits, has said he wouldn’t have signed the 2018 gun-reform legislation but that he wouldn’t seek its repeal.

How many guns are in Florida? Who knows!

Data is an important part of gun safety. Unfortunately, our state government lacks reliable records and statistics when it comes to firearms. Florida doesn’t require the licensing of firearm purchases, and the state has no central registration of new or used guns purchased in Florida, with the exception of the “concealed weapon permit” — and the new “constitutional carry” law eliminated that requirement, and training, to publicly carry a firearm.

Fortunately, Florida still has several guardrails in laws that bar felons and delinquents who’ve committed felonies from carrying a firearm. There are also still many places where firearms are legally restricted, like airports, bars, courthouses, government buildings, schools, and any “places of nuisances,” a term that covers areas where illicit and illegal activities occur.

State lawmakers last year did their part to strengthen a law already on the books that bars guns from any legislative meetings. They decided to include bulletproof windows as part of $61 million in improvements to the state capitol.

There have been some attempts to put sensible gun-safety laws before the Legislature. HB 259 and SB 270, bills filed by Rep. Katherine Waldron, D-Wellington, and Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, would impose first degree misdemeanor fines and jail time for firearm discharges in a residential community that fail to remain within the shooter’s property. Given the zealotry for gun rights in Florida, this law would be a big step forward.

Other more extensive bills, like HB 1619, that would repeal the constitutional carry law, and HB 279 and SB 150, which would ban the sale of assault weapons like the ones used at the mass shootings at Parkland and the earlier mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, have even far less chance of consideration, much less passage.

The good news is a few more-extreme efforts to roll back Florida’s firearm restrictions seem stalled, particularly in the Florida Senate, where Senate President Kathleen Passidomo called the House’s age-change bill a non-starter.

Gun safety should be the priority, given the Parkland tragedy and the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, which killed 49. But, this is Florida, where simply stalling bad gun bills is a win.

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