Florida Record

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Elected officials face 'challenges' in libel lawsuits, attorney says


By Kyla Asbury | Jan 22, 2020

Frank LoMonte, University of Florida | Facebook

TALLAHASSEE — Frank LoMonte, an attorney and the director of the University of Florida's Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, said there is a big difference between reporting that someone has faced an accusation and somehow vouching for the truth of that accusation.

As a $10 million libel suit brought by a former state senator unfolds, LoMonte said it is really challenging for an elected official to win a such a suit, for obvious and well-justified reasons.

"People who run for public office put their behavior in the spotlight, and when they're accused of doing something wrong, that's a matter of public concern and we don't want journalists to be inhibited in covering it," LoMonte said in an interview with The Florida Record. "So the law puts a pretty forceful thumb on the scale of the publisher when writing about the behavior of a public figure."

LoMonte said that even with that, it is certainly possible to libel a public figure, but the burden to prove the case would be awfully challenging.

"The journalists would have to have blown through some pretty obvious red flags to be held liable," LoMonte said. "Just an honest mistake is not going to be enough to hold them liable."

In December, former Democratic state Sen. Joe Abruzzo filed a lawsuit against The Tampa Bay Times alleging it and its reporter, Steve Bousquet, libeled him in a 2017 article wherein tweets by his now ex-wife were publicized, according to Florida Politics.

Abruzzo alleged that because the news agency has never corrected or retracted the article shows that it was knowingly spreading false and defamatory statements.

"They'd have to have seen all sorts of red flags that the ex-wife was not believable but disregarded those red flags," LoMonte said. "Without knowing her reputation, or what steps the paper took to check out her story, there's no way of assessing the strength of their defense."

LoMonte said the fact that the accusations are made on social media is an interesting twist that he thinks probably ends up cutting in favor of the newspaper.

"You could argue that just the very fact that the accusations were lodged in a public setting is itself a newsworthy matter of public concern," LoMonte said. "That doesn't give any journalist a free pass to republish libel, but when a prominent person is accused of serious wrongdoing, the law recognizes some latitude to report on the existence of the allegations, even if they ultimately prove to be untrue."

LoMonte said that, undoubtedly, voters in Abruzzo's district were talking about the allegations, and those allegations might factor into whether people would be interested in supporting him in the future, so just the fact that the charge is made becomes relevant to his political future even if the charge can't be substantiated.

"There's a difference between reporting that someone has faced an accusation and somehow vouching for the truth of that accusation, and I don't see anything on the face of the Times story that makes me say 'they gave their assurance that the allegations checked out as reliable,'" LoMonte said.

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