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A bill in Florida that’s supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis would make it easier to sue journalists for defamation, and press freedom advocates say such a change in the law would be extremely dangerous. The bill would seemingly violate a Supreme Court ruling that established these press protections, New York Times v. Sullivan, but it appears the bill may be an effort to get the Supreme Court to reconsider that decision and, as former President Trump once put it, “open up” libel laws.
The bill, HB 991, was introduced by Florida state Rep. Alex Andrade, a Republican. It would redefine “actual malice” to make it easier to win a defamation suit against a journalist. Actual malice is the term used to determine if a journalist knew what they were writing about a public figure was false or should have known it was false. The bill would also change who can be considered a “public figure” under the law.
“The New York Times v. Sullivan ‘actual malice’ rule applies when the plaintiff is a public official or a public figure, and the courts have defined the category of public figure pretty broadly,” Samantha Barbas, a law professor at the University at Buffalo who focuses on First Amendment law, told Raw Story.
Essentially, the bill would make it so fewer people are considered public figures, which means the Sullivan rules would apply to fewer cases, and the people who do qualify as public figures wouldn’t have to provide much evidence that the journalist was acting maliciously or irresponsibly. This change in the law wouldn’t only affect journalists, though.
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“The Sullivan actual malice rule affects all speakers, so ordinary citizens who want to comment on public officials or public affairs are protected by it if they make comments that are defamatory. We tend to think of Sullivan as a shield for the press, but really it affects everyone who wants to make commentary or criticism on public issues,” said Barbas, who recently wrote a book on the matter entitled “Actual Malice: Civil Rights and Freedom of the Press in New York Times v. Sullivan”.
So say you’re a Florida resident. You want to go to a town hall meeting and make some negative comments about your local representative. Feel free to do so — just know that without Sullivan in force, the lawmaker could potentially sue you for defamation, possibly successfully, just for insulting their character. The same could apply to posting negative comments about public figures on social media.
Prior to the Sullivan ruling in 1964, defamation lawsuits were often used against newspapers that were writing about the civil rights movement and racist activities in the Jim Crow South.
Post-Sullivan, those newspapers were much more protected from such lawsuits.
“In the late 1950s and early 1960s in the Jim Crow South there were a few judges and lawyers who came up with this very cynical theory of using defamation law to try to squelch northern newspapers from covering the civil rights struggle, voting rights abuses and things like that,” Lili Levi, a law professor at the University of Miami, told Raw Story. “They wanted to maintain the Jim Crow regime. That is the case that went up to the Supreme Court that we refer to as New York Times v. Sullivan.”
If this kind of legal shift did come to pass, such repressive tactics could be revived by people who want to stop the media from reporting on things they don’t like or want to keep hidden from the public eye.
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Barbas and Levi said they believe this bill was introduced to set up a case for the Supreme Court, because there would certainly be court cases regarding if it was constitutional. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have both expressed a desire to revisit the Sullivan rules.
U.S. Supreme Court (L-R) Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts pose for their official portrait at the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court building on October 7, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images
“You might actually be able to get five justices to agree to revisiting and, even if not totally reversing, at least significantly truncating New York Times v. Sullivan protections,” Levi said. “The press, which by the way includes anyone who writes on Substack or Twitter or wherever, is going to potentially be liable for a significant amount of damages in a libel suit. That is one of the dangers of legislation like this, if it’s passed.”
Beyond what’s happening in Florida and the possibility of a Supreme Court case, it’s clear there’s a growing desire among Republicans nationwide to “open up” libel laws in a bid to shut down press freedoms.
Trump, who is running for president again while facing massive legal peril, famously called for that when he was running for president in 2016 and has repeated it multiple times. DeSantis, too, appears to support this kind of change as he considers challenging Trump and launching his own 2024 presidential bid. Even a libertarian such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) has called for changing the Sullivan rules to make it easier to sue journalists. Relatedly, DeSantis is also seemingly trying to prevent journalists from requesting information about where he travels.
“We’ve seen this widespread attack on New York Times v. Sullivan over the past five or six years … I don’t see why this wouldn’t spread to other conservative states while there’s this pervasive anti-media sentiment and all of this talk about needing to change Sullivan,” Barbas said. “This is really unprecedented, historically. I’ve looked at the criticism of Sullivan since 1964, and there’s always been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and people saying Sullivan went too far, but I don’t think we’ve had a concerted attack like this in our history.”
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Levi said that if other states start to pass similar bills, that could make it more likely the Supreme Court would reconsider Sullivan. She said there would presumably be a lot of court cases going on around the country focusing on the constitutionality of these laws.
“I think if you have a bunch of statutes in a bunch of states that attempt to cut back, in one way or another, on protections for the press, some of those are going to end up being upheld by some courts, and they might become the occasion when [a Supreme Court review] could be granted,” Levi said.
Policies that are spearheaded by DeSantis in Florida, from the “Don’t Say Gay” bill to book bans, sometimes spread to other states, so it only seems logical that members of a party that’s constantly decrying the so-called “liberal media” would join this effort to change defamation laws in America. What happens in Florida doesn’t tend to stay in Florida.
“It’s quite possible this could spread to other states, which is also what makes it very dangerous,” Levi said.
One of the bill's co-sponsors, Florida state Rep. Mike Beltran (R), says he’s not sure if other states will adopt similar legislation.
However, he did make clear what he’d like to see happen.
“I think that it will likely be litigated and would be the vehicle to roll back much of the Supreme Court's dicta from NYT v. Sullivan, etc.,” Beltran told Raw Story. “The current case law finds no support in textualist or originalist principles and unfairly allows people to be defamed without redress."
In a time of dire economic trouble, Egyptians are holding fast to the Ramadan tradition of charity, with both donors and those in need pinning hopes on holiday generosity.
Families have buckled under the weight of inflation, which hit 32.9 percent in February as Egyptians tried to fill their shelves ahead of the Islamic holy month of daytime fasting and special evening meals, known as iftar.
"Last year, we were giving out 360 iftar meals every day -- this year, I'm not sure we'll make it to 200," said the founder of a small charity in the working-class Cairo district of al-Marg.
Yet those meals have never been more vital, the charity worker said, asking not to be named for privacy concerns.
For many families, Ramadan boxes of food staples or daily charity iftar meals, organized in droves across the country, "are their only chance to eat meat or chicken," she added.
Even before the current economic crisis -- worsened by Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year, which destabilized crucial food imports -- 30 percent of Egyptians were living under the poverty line, with the same number vulnerable to falling into poverty, according to the World Bank.
In addition, surging costs of animal feed have pushed the once-affordable meal of chicken out of reach for most of Egypt's nearly 105 million-strong population.
Before Ramadan began, the charities upon which tens of millions of Egyptians depend raised the alarm that they were struggling to meet more people's needs, at higher costs, with dwindling donations.
'Tis the season
But a focus on generosity, even and especially in times of trouble, is baked into Ramadan, "when most Egyptians give out their yearly charity, a very cherished custom," said Manal Saleh, who heads the Egyptian Clothing Bank.
Egyptians gave nearly five billion Egyptian pounds to charity (at the time, around $315 million) during 10 months of donations recorded in 2021, according to state media.
But of that, around "90 percent" was given during Ramadan, Saleh estimated, who also helped found one of the country's biggest charities, the Egyptian Food Bank.
Each day of the holy month, a staple of Egyptian city streets at sunset is the sight of mawaed al-rahman, charity tables where strangers come to break their fast for free, sometimes hundreds at a time.
Many are organized by anonymous donors such as Fouad, a 64-year-old retired engineer, who asked to use a pseudonym because his initiative is not a legally recognized charity.
This year, he and his group of friends who run the soup kitchen out of a local mosque have had to double their budget, committing to feeding even more people in their community and "not just the least fortunate."
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, they have forgone the conventional banquet table for a grab-and-go makeshift cafeteria.
All month, the kitchen serves meals to the community, including underprivileged families and, increasingly, store clerks and other workers who can no longer afford a mid-shift hot meal, saving them some 60 or 70 pounds, around two dollars.
"They know their family needs that money," Fouad said.
'People stick together'
According to the latest official figures from 2021, the average salary in Egypt is 4,000 pounds a month, or $129.
Meanwhile, the price of a kilogram of the cheapest subsidized local meat has nearly doubled to 220 pounds, about a quarter of a week's pay.
Savings have been slashed as the currency lost half its value in a year, and more and more people are struggling to make ends meet.
With families across classes cutting back on everything from grocery bills to schooling, charity budgets could have been the first to go.
"Honestly, I had grown almost hopeless a couple of weeks ago, when we looked at the numbers and realized we may not be able to pull it off this year," Fouad told AFP.
"But those who could have doubled their donations from last year, because they know how important it is for us to step up in times like this."
Saleh said that Ramadan charity is a tough habit to break.
"We've seen crises before, and people stick together," Saleh said.
"I think that even if individuals can't give as much, you'll see more people lending a hand, volunteering, making meals for those around them, even if cash is tight."
© 2023 AFP
Trump's NY case a 'dry run' for Fulton — where the former president faces more legal peril
With Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg wrapping up his presentation to a Manhattan grand jury that is expected to result in an indictment against Donald Trump, down in Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is keeping a close watch on what charges will be brought and how Bragg will proceed in making his case to the public.
According to a report from the Atlantic-Journal Constitution, an indictment of the former president will briefly take pressure off of Willis whose case is likely to be stronger than the Manhattan case which involves hush money paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election.
As the report notes, Willis is using the New York proceedings as a "dry run" that will enable her office and local law enforcement to prepare for the inevitable attacks from Trump that could spur violence.
"Most legal analysts have argued that the Fulton case presents more legal peril to Trump. They point to the recording of the phone call Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021, during which he pressed him to 'find' 11,780 votes, as particularly damning proof," The AJC is reporting.
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“The Georgia charges are far more serious and, personally, I think easier to prove. Bragg has to jump through hoops to make what Trump did in New York a felony. Should Trump be indicted in Georgia, the acts speak for themselves," explained former DeKalb County DA J. Tom Morgan.
The report adds, "the pressure wouldn’t be limited to the DA’s office. Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney’s handling of the case has already been called into question by Trump’s lawyers, and the former president’s allies are likely to step up their attacks. McBurney left little doubt Monday about his role overseeing matters, issuing an order directing prosecutors to respond to Trump’s motion by May 1 but ignoring the former president’s recent request that he step aside."
You can read more here.