Several members of the committee, including Republicans, did say they had concerns about sections of the bill that would alter requirements about which party must pay for the other’s attorney fees, fearing it might undermine laws aimed at preventing retaliatory or frivolous lawsuits designed to silence critics.
Some said they hoped amendments would be made to the bill, which has also been referred to the House’s Judiciary Committee for review, before it is brought up for further consideration by the full House.
John Harris Maurer, public policy director for the LGBTQ group Equality Florida, told the committee that the bill also needs further clarification in a section that deals with defamatory allegations of discrimination against queer people.
Currently, the bill states that a defendant cannot try to prove the truth of their claim by citing the plaintiff’s scientific or “constitutionally protected religious expression or beliefs.”
Andrade insisted that his bill means that a defendant cannot use such statements as their sole piece of evidence, but Harris Maurer said this was not clear in the text.
“This bill is sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic,” Harris Maurer said. “Why? Because it restricts people’s ability to call out sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. It is politically motivated.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely reported to be preparing to announce a run for president, has been vocal about his plans to roll back press freedoms. DeSantis also hosted a roundtable on defamation last month with right-wing figures that foreshadowed the legislation.
After the meeting, Block with the First Amendment Foundation told BuzzFeed News he was disappointed that the bill had made it over its first hurdle, but that he suspected state Republicans would soon feel pressure to vote against it from conservative media, who would be just as at risk from defamation claims as other press.
“A law like this is kind of like weaponizing a virus or bacteria,” Block said. “Once you release it into the wild, you have no idea what it’s going to do. You can’t control any of it. It could swing around and bite you in the ass.”