Press protection bill may be costing Smith

Published July 15, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - State Sen. Rod Smith's proposal to protect the news media against an emerging type of lawsuit was largely ignored in this spring's legislative session and ultimately died.

But it may have come back to hurt his bid to become Florida governor.

Two prominent developers who have filed lawsuits accusing newspapers of casting their character in "false light" have turned their support to Smith's rival in the Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa.

Smith's legislation would have made it more difficult to file false-light lawsuits.

Clark Butler of Gainesville and Joe Anderson of Old Town both gave $500 each to Davis, the maximum allowed, and tens of thousands more to the Democratic Party.

Both developers, who have known Sen. Smith for years, "made it clear" they were not happy with the legislation that would have made it more difficult for false-light cases to proceed, said Smith's spokesman, David Kochman.

There's no evidence that the $78,000 given to the Democratic Party went solely to the Davis campaign. Indeed, such earmarking would violate state law.

Davis campaign spokesman Josh Earnest said his candidate believes in a "strong and independent media" but has not taken a position on Smith's bill.

Butler, who has accused the Gainesville Sun of "recklessly and intentionally" portraying him in false light, did not respond to a call for comment Friday afternoon. He gave $500 directly to Davis on March 3, the Friday before the legislative session started. He gave $28,000 to the Florida Democratic Party this year and has been a supporter in past years.

His daughter, Deborah Butler, played down the move. "I just know a family friend and person we've done business with came to us and asked us to support him," she said. Her father had previously contributed to Smith and lent his yacht for the wedding of Smith's stepdaughter.

Anderson also did not return a call for comment. In 2003, he won an $18-million verdict against the Pensacola News Journal for a story that said he shot and killed his wife, adding two sentences later that it was a hunting accident.

Since 1998, Anderson has given more than $100,000 to the Florida Republican Party. While he has made smaller direct contributions to individual Democrats, he had yet to give a dime to the Democratic Party until June 21, when he gave $50,000, according to state records. He also gave $500 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher.

Smith's bill (SB 1346) would not have affected pending cases. It would have required a plaintiff in a false-light case to prove information was untrue.

The bill never made it to the Senate floor for debate.