The FFRF Action Fund condemns a novel attack on free speech being pushed in the Florida Legislature that would turn virtually any accusation of discrimination into “defamation” but would exempt religiously inspired discriminatory language.
Florida state Sen. Jason Brodeur has introduced Senate Bill 1780, which would treat accusations of racism, homophobia, sexism or transphobia as defamatory, potentially fining the accuser up to $35,000. The bill, after going through a Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month, removed its most egregious language but the intent of the bill remains the same. At its introduction, the bill’s original language stated: “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.”
Discriminatory religious dogma would have been protected under the original bill, though, with defamation defendants not being permitted to use the plaintiff’s “constitutionally protected religious expression or beliefs” as evidence of homophobia or transphobia. Religion-backed homophobia and transphobia would ultimately get a free pass, eliminating a significant portion of discrimination accusations in Florida.
The goal of the expansive legislation is to silence virtually all accusations of discrimination, particularly on Florida’s hot-button issues, such as racism, homophobia, sexism and transphobia. This would apply to any statements made in print, on television or even on social media. It would open up the possibility that passing remarks pointing out homophobia or transphobia on social media would make everyday people violators of the bill.
The unedited bill would have also repealed the vital journalistic privilege of keeping sources anonymous. Statements coming from anonymous sources would have automatically been considered “presumptively false.” Journalists would then become vulnerable to defamation lawsuits for reporting on discrimination while utilizing anonymous sources.
After a public backlash, the bill’s language protecting religious beliefs and rendering all anonymous sources as untruthful was replaced with seemingly more anodyne language, but the overarching goal of the bill has not changed: Florida religious extremists want to be able to sue anyone who calls out their religious extremist views for defamation.
The current version of the bill still threatens newspapers with increased liability. It would undermine one of the fundamental pillars of journalistic integrity, as the bill was originally intended to do.
Brodeur is following a growing Florida trend of attacking free speech. The state senator introduced last year a bill that would require state registration of bloggers who criticize Florida’s government, revealing that he only cares about protecting “free speech” when it benefits him.
Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, passed into law in July 2022, prohibited classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade, which was later expanded to eighth grade. The sweeping legislation has troublingly been used to further Florida’s large-scale book banning. Books are being banned in Florida for just having LGBTQ-plus characters irrespective of the presence of sexual material in the writing — proving that the legislation was never about protecting against “sexual instruction.” Shockingly, more than 40 percent of book bans nationwide in the 2022-2023 school year took place just in Florida, with more than 1,400 titles being banned in the state.
“Whether Brodeur’s legislation will move remains to be seen, but it’s not safe to assume anything, given Florida’s current political climate,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Action Fund president. “Regardless, Brodeur should be roundly admonished for his brazen attempt to chill speech — except speech on the behalf of religion.”
The FFRF Action Fund is the legislative arm of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has over 40,000 members nationwide and works to keep religion out of government and to educate about nontheism.