Florida’s new anti-gay bill aims to limit and punish protected freedom of expression

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By the second day of Florida’s legislative session, which began last month, lawmakers had introduced nearly 20 anti-gay or transgender bills. One of these bills, sb 1780, It would make accusing someone of being homophobic, transphobic, racist, or sexist, even if the accusation is true, tantamount to defamation, punishable by a fine of at least $35,000. If passed, the bill would severely limit and penalize constitutionally protected freedom of speech in the state.

Related: Florida Congressman introduces bill to ban pride flags from college campuses

Although SB 1780 is unlikely to survive the Supreme Courts, its introduction is indicative of a broader conservative strategy to stifle criticism of racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior. Critics say the bill was introduced to check the waters and see how far lawmakers can go legally so they can silence critics.

“That’s the pattern here in Florida,” said Sharon Austin, a political science professor at the University of Florida. “They introduced a bill that a lot of us find really extreme. When we start protesting, they eventually withdraw some of the provisions and water down it a little bit, but in the end it gets passed.”

Austin points out that similar bills, like SB 266, which severely limits diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, and HB7, the “Stop Woke Act,” which regulates how race and ethnicity issues are taught in schools, eventually passed. After lawmakers made the bills a little less extreme.

Understanding the landscape state lawmakers are trying to build is critical, said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “This session will probably be known as the ‘LGBT Legislative Session,’” he said. “They’re going to spend [two-month legislative session] They practice their intolerance and hostility to the gay community in Florida.”

During last year’s legislative session, several anti-gay bills were introduced, including the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which has been challenged several times since it was signed into law. Florida taxpayers have paid for a number of lawsuits in the past few years, totaling into the millions.

Both Simon and Austin argue that by crafting bills that specifically target LGBTQ+ people, DEI efforts and free speech, conservative lawmakers are trying to push those who don’t fit the mold of what they think Florida should look like out of state.

“Like it or not, if someone wants to accuse you of racism, sexism or homophobia, they have the right to do so,” Austin said. “It’s protected speech. There are attempts to intimidate and bully teachers and individuals by telling them that if you say something that is unpopular, that offends conservatives, we will come after you, and then we will punish you.”

“It’s a scary time”

Passage of SB 1780 would have sweeping effects on free speech, as the bill’s restrictions apply to everything from print and television to online social media posts. Not only would the bill make it virtually impossible to prove accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia, it would also make the victim of discriminatory remarks liable for damages suffered by the perpetrator. If enough people are charged under the bill, it will likely intimidate others and prevent them from reporting discrimination, effectively silencing victims of hate crimes or other forms of intolerance, Simon said. Austin likens the bill and others like it to McCarthyism.

“This is the level of paranoia we’ve reached. It’s a scary time,” she said. “It makes you wonder if we’re going back to… the kind of society where you’re almost afraid to say anything for fear of offending conservatives who are really trying to destroy you.” If you say something they don’t like. “

SB 1780 would also have implications for journalists: If passed, the bill would remove reporters’ ability to keep sources anonymous. Journalists who write about discrimination would be particularly vulnerable to lawsuits, as the bill states that “a statement made by an anonymous source shall be presumed to be false for the purposes of a defamation claim.” Austin believes this is another attempt to control the media.

A similar, more comprehensive bill, HB 991, was explicitly introduced Easier to sue journalists It passed the Civil Justice Subcommittee last year. Although it died in the Judiciary Committee, SB 1780 is the second attempt to pass the law.

“I hope members of the Florida Legislature have enough sense to not pass this,” Simon said. “But if that happened, I don’t think the courts would have a hard time seeing as unconstitutional restrictions on free speech have existed all along.”

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