Editor’s note: The bill discussed here was proposed in the Florida House of Representatives, but died in the waning days of the Legislature’s 2023 session. The column was written before the bill died.
It seems that the richest and most powerful people often have the thinnest skins. Say something rude about a politician, he gets all upset. And never question development, you may be interfering with contractual relationships.
There is one former Congress critter out in California who actually sued a make-believe cow on Twitter. The make-believe cow called him “udderly” worthless. It takes some effort to lose against a make-believe cow.
However, the Florida Legislature has taken these things to heart. They want to make it easier to sue people who criticize politicians, and HB 2023-0991 is just their pail of milk.
Since 2015, Florida has had a facially useful anti-SLAPP law. A speaker on a matter of public interest can bring a motion to dispose of the claim. This avoids some of the costs associated with discovery and trial. If the speaker wins, the case goes away, and he gets some of his fees reimbursed.
This is helpful because it acts as discouragement for the thin-skinned developers and politicians. The threat of litigation is less scary if you can get rid of it early and cheaply.
Wait a minute, the thin-skinned politicians and their friendly developers do not like that at all. The pending HB 991 pretty much reverses the whole thing.
Under HB 991, if you criticize a politician or the well-connected, they get fees. They do not even have to win. Simply getting sued for criticizing one of them would expose you to paying their fees.
And, if your criticism was that someone was biased, it gets worse. They also get, in addition to damages, at least $35,000 just for being mean.
Oddly enough, you cannot offer their own statements as evidence of bias. After all, that would prove the thing they are busy denying.
Turning thin skins into profit is a new business model for the legislators and their wealthy pals. The only bright spot in the whole thing is that it is clearly unconstitutional. That has not stopped the Legislature in the past.
The Florida Legislature could not be more obviously coin-operated if there were a neon Livendco sign flashing above the members’ entrance. And going in, you just know what they are thinking — keep those cards and letters coming, and make sure you enclose a check!
— Andrews is a DeLand-area attorney and a longtime government critic. For purposes of the column, he finds it convenient that there is so much government to criticize.