Florida lawmakers consider bills allowing police to sue over false complaints

Friday, March 31, 2000

Two bills in the Florida Legislature that would allow police to sue
individuals for false complaints about officers would squelch citizen speech,
says the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

House Bill 919 and Senate Bill 1706, both introduced earlier this month, say
law enforcement officials can sue for defamation “if the complaint is false, the
complaint was made with knowledge that it was false, and the complaint was made
with spite, hatred or ill will.”

Republican Rep. Mike Flanagan introduced the House bill, and Democratic Sen.
Kendrick Meek sponsored the Senate bill.

Larry Spalding, legislative staff counsel for the ACLU of Florida, says his
group opposes the bills because they will have the effect, whether intended or
not, of causing citizens to think twice before criticizing the police.

“In my opinion the bills would not create any new rights, in the sense that
under current law police officers can file defamation suits,” Spalding said.
“Thus, it could be that the real intent of the bill could be to prohibit
citizens from filing complaints about law enforcement officials.”

Last year a federal district court in Gritchen v. Collier struck down
a similar California law that allowed police to sue over false complaints. The
federal court wrote that the California law had a chilling effect because “it
imposes a greater risk upon citizens who report claimed police misconduct and
thereby discourage the filing of complaints.”

“The California experience has proved quite dramatically that the ability of
police officers to file defamation suits against citizens who file complaints
did chill speech,” said Paul McMasters, The Freedom Forum’s First Amendment

“There are police officers who would like to have the ability to stifle fair
criticism,” McMasters said. “That is not to say that there are some illegitimate
complaints filed against police officers and that is unfortunate. However, the
answer is not to pass a law that will stifle speech and lead to SLAPP suits.”

SLAPP suits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, are lawsuits
that critics say are designed to retaliate against individuals for the exercise
of their First Amendment rights.

Both bills have been referred to committees but no hearings have been
scheduled. Calls placed to the offices of Meek and Flanagan were not

Spalding says that he doesn’t expect the bills to go anywhere. “We are about
at the halfway point in this year’s legislative session, and there have been no
hearings set or any staff analyses of these measures,” he said.