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Florida bill would make it defamation to accuse someone of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia

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CBS News Miami Live

MIAMI — A bill introduced in the Florida Senate would make it defamation to accuse someone of racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia, which could total the freedom of speech in the Sunshine State.

SB 1780 — "Defamation, False Light, and Unauthorized Publication of Name or Likeness," which was introduced on Friday — would make it easier for an individual to sue another person for defamation.

According to the measure, "an allegation that the plaintiff has discriminated against another person or group because of their race, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity constitutes defamation per se." So even when these allegations are false, they are automatically defamatory.

Under SB 1780, anyone in these circumstances wouldn't have to prove "actual malice," which was a standard set for defamation suits following the decision in the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times vs. Sullivan. Additionally, the bill would make it easier to set up the conditions for a fact-finder to automatically infer that actual malice took place after an accusation of discrimination is made.

In cases regarding accusations of homophobia or transphobia, defendants charged with defamation are not allowed to use the plaintiff's religious or scientific beliefs as part of their defense. And if they're found liable for defamation, the defendant could be fined at least $35,000.  

Like its Florida House counterpart — HB 757 — the bill would significantly narrow the definition of a "public figure" in defamation suits by excluding non-elected or appointed public employees and individuals who gained notoriety by publicly defending themselves against accusations, giving interviews or being the subject of a viral "video, image, or statement uploaded on the Internet." The bill also applies to statements made in print, television and social media.

Lastly, the bill also removes certain privileges provided to journalists and media entities — specifically the right to keep sources anonymous. According to the bill, statements made by anonymous sources would be considered "presumptively false" and make journalists vulnerable to these lawsuits.

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