Florida advances bills on gender identity, defamation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Republicans on Tuesday advanced a proposal to ban classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity through the eighth grade, expanding the controversial law critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”

The bill, which was approved by a House subcommittee, still must clear another committee before moving to the full House. A separate House subcommittee approved a bill that would make it easier to sue journalists for defamation, a priority for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who frequently criticizes what he calls “legacy media.”

The education measure also would prohibit school staffers or students from being required to refer to people by pronouns that don’t correspond to the person’s sex.

Florida came under intense national scrutiny last year over the so-called Don’t Say Gay law, which prohibits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade.

DeSantis has been a fierce defender of the law as part of his campaign against what he calls woke ideology in education, a position he has heavily leaned into as he prepares to launch his expected presidential candidacy.

The proposal approved Tuesday would expand the ban of classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from prekindergarten to the eighth grade.

The bill also prevents schools from asking for a student’s preferred pronouns and bars staff from giving their own preferred pronouns. Republicans on the committee rejected an amendment to the bill that would allow a teacher to use a student’s preferred pronoun if a parent gave formal permission.

“This bill is anti-freedom, anti-liberty. It’s not about parental rights, it’s not about kids rights. it’s about scoring political points. It’s about power and control,” said Democratic Rep. Angie Nixon.

Similarly, Democrats said the defamation bill would diminish media and speech protections in the U.S. Constitution in what was described as an abuse of government power.

The legislation sponsored by Republican Rep. Alex Andrade would, among other things, declare statements made by an anonymous source to be presumptively false as they relate to a defamation lawsuit unless a reporter reveals who the source is. He said it doesn’t mean people can’t criticize politicians and others, but rather that media can’t use information it knows is false to deliberately hurt someone.

“I can’t sue anyone for defamation just because they called me a murderer because that was the easiest way to summarize how they felt about my COVID policy,” Andrade said. “It’s just an egregious and silly and childish statement. You’re entitled to be wrong in America.”

A long list of speakers representing groups such as open-government watchdogs the First Amendment Foundation and the Florida Press Association urged lawmakers to vote down the defamation bill, saying it would have a chilling effect on the media.

And Democratic Rep. Daryl Campbell accused Republicans of hypocrisy, saying they usually seek to make it more difficult for people to sue private companies . He also said the proposal would harm journalists’ abilities to do investigative research.

“It incentivizes lawsuits in a Legislature whose goal up until now … has been to decrease litigation,” said Democratic Rep. Daryl Campbell. “This is an abuse of power and an infringement on freedom of free speech and free press, not to mention the U.S. and Florida constitution.”