DeSantis and Panel Discuss Need for Libel Law Reforms to Protect Everyday Citizens

By Dan M. Berger
Dan M. Berger
Dan M. Berger
Dan M. Berger mostly covers issues around Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for The Epoch Times. He also closely followed the 2022 midterm elections. He is a veteran of print newspapers in Florida and upstate New York and now lives in the Atlanta area.
February 8, 2023Updated: February 8, 2023

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hosted a live-streamed roundtable discussion on Feb. 7, aiming at big media companies who, participants said, play fast and loose with the truth, leaving broken lives in their wake.

They discussed the 1964 Supreme Court decision of the New York Times v. Sullivan, which made it nearly impossible for a public figure to win a libel suit. The allegedly injured party must show the information was not only false and damaging—the usual standard to prove libel—but that the journalist knew it and chose to publish it anyway.

Courts have subsequently extended the standard to turn everyday people into public figures, said libel lawyer Libby Locke.

That immunizes news organizations from having to pay damages to them after wrecking their lives or businesses with false stories, she said.

Epoch Times Photo
University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. (Courtesy of Aubrey Jewett.)

DeSantis didn’t announce any libel-law reforms but hinted some might be upcoming. “We’ll be having more to say about a whole bunch of different issues over the next couple of weeks. So stay tuned.”

Asked by The Epoch Times if DeSantis planned any action, spokesman Bryan Griffin responded, “The governor empaneled this roundtable because he believes it is a matter of great importance to bring to the public’s attention.”

Political science professor Aubrey Jewett told The Epoch Times in an email that most libel law is federal and there may not be much that DeSantis can do about it at the state level.

“On the other hand. Gov. DeSantis has been very creative in finding ways to take action on issues that he cares about [and wants publicity for]. Combined with the new conservative majority on the Florida Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court, it would not surprise me if Gov. DeSantis pushed the legislature to pass a new law making it easier to sue for defamation in Florida,” Jewett, of Central Florida University, said.

Even if DeSantis loses a challenge to such a law, Jewett said, “he still gets to enhance his reputation as a conservative who challenges the status quo. In the best-case scenario, the law is upheld, and he helps to change precedent and gets even more political credit.”

One roundtable participant was Nicholas Sandmann.

He was 16 years old, a student at Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School in 2019, when he and fellow students, some wearing MAGA hats, waited for a bus after a pro-life march in Washington.

They encountered participants in the Indigenous People’s March, including Native Americans and members of the Black Hebrew Israelites.

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University of Virginia administrator Nicole Eramo (L) leaves the federal courthouse in Charlottesville, Va., with attorney Libby Locke (R) on Nov. 4, 2016. A federal jury found Rolling Stone magazine defamed Eramo in a discredited story about gang rape at a fraternity house at the university. (Ryan M. Kelly /The Daily Progress via AP)

Incident coverage—first on social media and then major news organs—was slanted against them, tagging them as white supremacists and racists.

Sandmann took it the worst. His face was most prominent in videos posted on social media as he was closest to protester Nathan Phillips, who fanned the flames with social media statements later providing the core of Sandmann’s libel case.

He was doxxed, there were social media calls for violence against the boys, and demonstrators came to his house, he said. The high school had to close temporarily.

Sandmann sued numerous media companies for $275 million for defamation. He won settlements for undisclosed amounts from CNN, the Washington Post, and NBC. Cases against several others, though, have been dismissed.

“CNN, and then all of the usual suspects, they all came and piled on. They saw a narrative that they wanted to further. They didn’t do, really, any underlying investigation. They just ran with it,” DeSantis said to Sandmann. “What was going through your mind, when all this was unfolding, as a 16-year-old?”

“I didn’t even get the opportunity of a ‘care to comment?’ or request for any of that,” Sandmann said.

“I found out on the bus ride back home to Northern Kentucky at three in the morning that this was making its way around Twitter. And there were already pictures of my face photoshopped onto lunch counter protests during the Civil Rights Movement.

“And I was very confused because I hadn’t even said anything. I had, you know, stood there until our bus came and I had gone home.”

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Thousands of gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capital building in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 20, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The incident made it harder for him to get into college, he said.

News organizations defended themselves, Sandmann said, saying it was an “updating story” and  “We were giving the information that we had at the time.

“But that conflicts with what they want to do, which is to sell copies, get clicks. They want the revenue. And so it’s got to be inflammatory. But they’re also saying, ‘Well, we were only telling you what we knew at the time.’ Those two don’t work together.”

Carson Holloway, a fellow of the Claremont Institute, said the 1964 Times v. Sullivan decision by the U.S. Supreme Court broadened libel protection for the press.

ron desantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Las Vegas, Nev., on Nov. 19, 2022. (Wade Vandervort/AFP via Getty Images)

A “public figure”, if suing, must prove not only that a story was false and damaging but that the publication knew it and acting with “actual malice” ran the story anyway, Holloway said.

“This is distorting our politics in fundamental ways,” he said and added, for self-government, the public needs good information to pick their leaders.

“In a properly functioning democratic culture, the media would assist them in that by providing truthful and accurate information, not defamatory smears.”

People have equated the Times v. Sullivan case with First Amendment protections, said DeSantis, a Harvard Law graduate, and former military and federal prosecutor. But he noted the First Amendment, for nearly two centuries, coexisted with common law defamation. “No one questioned that.”

Roundtable participants agreed the Trump presidency represented a significant worsening of the situation.

“The swan song has been this Russia collusion hoax,” DeSantis said. “Because they indulged in that for two years. And it was almost all based on anonymous sources, and then it all eventually was debunked.”

“It just raises the question, this obsession with these anonymous sources, where did that come from? It used to be rare that you would do it. I mean, assassinate someone’s character with anonymous sources would have been a total no-no. Now it’s just kind of a normal and actually the preferred method.”

Journalist Michael Moynihan agreed. He said he didn’t watch cable news often, but does while in a hotel room. That morning he’d tuned in.

“Good Lord, I cannot believe I was watching MSNBC. They appear to think that Trump is still president. I mean, this is the business model, right? I was watching this, the previous night, this morning, it’s all Trump all the time.”

Lawyer Vel Freedman of Miami represents Zachary Young, a veteran with post-military security experience who worked to get refugees out of Afghanistan. They successfully rescued 15 to 20 people. But CNN tagged him as a black-marketing exploiter and destroyed his ability to save people.

“His income went to zero,” Freedman said.

CNN later apologized, but Young is suing them. “You don’t get to destroy someone’s life and reputation and then issue a five-second apology and that’s over.”

“Day in and day out, we see how the media does not do the job that the American public and Florida citizens would expect them to do,” said Locke.

With her husband and law partner Tom Clare, she represents plaintiffs in libel lawsuits.

At every phase of the legal process, she said, “the thumb is on the scale in favor of the press.”

Locke said they represent Michael Black, a surgeon taking on difficult neonatal surgical cases and working in poor neighborhoods. Locke said a CNN story represented Black in a story as a baby killer, despite the news organization having been told by several experts that they couldn’t interpret mortality rates as they did.

Black was put out of business, she said. “He hasn’t operated since that time.”

DeSantis said while he’s been the subject of many stories attacking him, this wasn’t about him.

“You know, when they come after me, and they do a lot of slander, but I fight back. I have a platform to fight that. So it’s a lot easier for me.”

“But you have some of these other folks who are just run-of-the-mill citizens. Their only possible way of recourse would be to bring an action, because they don’t have the platform.”

Dennis O’Connor, former secretary for the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights advocacy group, discussed editing done for a Katie Couric documentary, “Under the Gun.”

Members of the group agreed to be interviewed by Couric, only for their answers to her questions to be edited out, making it look like they couldn’t answer her questions. Producers instead used footage of the group being silent.

O’Connor said that footage was taped secretly before the filmed interview began. The group was told they must remain still and silent for a sound check, he said.

Katie Couric
Katie Couric appears at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, Calif., on March 27, 2022. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Couric apologized for inserting a “dramatic pause,” but the group was unsuccessful in suing. A judge ruled the report was neither false nor defamatory, O’Connor said.

Participants discussed whether the Supreme Court might revisit Times v. Sullivan, as Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have indicated they favor that. The raucous confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh might have gone differently under improved libel standards, they agreed.

“What they put him through was really outrageous,” Locke said.

Other libel law reforms suggested included requiring news organizations to retain notes longer, lengthening the statute of limitations for libel, reforming pertinent insurance coverage, and not taxing plaintiffs’ libel awards.