by Sarah Richards

Photo courtesy of the University of West Florida

“I may be one of the only people in Pensacola to have appeared in an Andy Marlette cartoon and is still smiling,” Miami-Herald columnist, Carl Hiaasen, said at an evening event held on September 12 at the New World Landing in Downtown Pensacola.  

Hiaasen spoke on the various lenses through which Americans view the First Amendment.  Anecdotal appetizers of Men Behaving Badly in Florida and a refresher course on the First Amendment were on the menu.

Hiaasen outlined the Government Sunshine Law, which guarantees that the public has access to public records of what is going on in their government—a law that “every year has to be fought for in Tallahassee to maintain.”

Jeffrey Epstein was first on the agenda of Florida offenders.  Hiaasen thanked the reporting of Julie Brown with the Miami-Herald “who almost single-handedly brought [the Epstein case] back into the public claim.”  Had she not gone back and looked at that case, Epstein would still be “skating along.”

The usual suspects of sex, with Bob Kraft (CEO of the New England Patriots), and drugs, with Justin Bieber, also came up, showing how Florida seems to be either a magnet for those exhibiting bad behavior or for those who are somehow inspired by Florida to fall on the wrong side of the law.

“Genius” Alex Jones of InfoWars, who claimed the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was a hoax—that the parents were “crisis actors” who were part of a “whole conspiracy manufactured by gun control advocates” to take the weapons of every American, was one of the main dishes.  Jones personally attacked several of the parents to the point where they either had to move, change their phone numbers, or get protection. Jones is now being sued, showing that free speech still has consequences.  

“There’s a myth that goes along with this great First Amendment debate,” Hiaasen said,  “that when someone gets fired from a media outlet for going too far, you’re censoring him—you’re taking away his first Amendments rights.  That’s complete BS.

“There’s nothing in the Constitution that says you have the right to get paid for your crazy ass views,” Hiaasen said, referencing YouTube and Facebook for not providing Jones a platform.

“He’ll be moving here soon,” Hiaasen said, eliciting chuckles from the audience.

Whether it’s hate speech or false speech, free speech comes with a price.

“There’s a phenomenon of people, guys in particular, who run for office, claiming to be decorated war heroes.  Most of us are not going to be calling up the Pentagon, asking if he has a Purple Heart.”

Reporters are the ones who do the fact-checking—who make the phone calls and find out if a candidate is trying to steal a gleam of military valor.

“You’ve got to go after those people,” Hiaasen said.  “There isn’t anyone in this room who would want to see the honor of real heroes and real veterans diminished by people like that.”

Hiaasen spoke on Rush Limbaugh, David Petraeus, and Tiger Woods—all of whom got into trouble when they came to Florida; Bernie Madoff did most of his damage in Florida.

Nine of the 9/11 hijackers lived in Florida, showing that all kinds come to the Sunshine State:  “Dreamers and predators.

After the second O.J. Simpson trial, Simpson’s lawyer stood on the steps of the LA County Courthouse, speaking on the civil suit verdict of 21 million, and said, “’Mr. Simpson cannot afford to pay this judgment—he might have to leave California.’”

Hiaasen said, “I remember turning to my wife at the time and said, ‘That son-of-a-bitch is coming to Florida.’”

And he did.

Of course, there’s the lighthearted side of the craziness in the state that Hiaasen said “has a mild history of corruption.” 

Florida boasts of the mythical #FloridaMan—a mashup of all the weird people who live here—people who “defy satire.” 

Florida is an exciting place to be a reporter.  “There’s very few places in the United States where three different mayors are arrested on three different corruption charges in the same week.”

Despite “Weird Florida,” the state “has always been on the leading edge of making records available.”

As the world has become more connected through the Internet, and through social media in particular, laws are trying to catch up to the technology.  “Twitter was part of the success of Al Qaeda,” Hiaasen said, as tweets are becoming has become a First Amendment issue.

Sometimes, a reporter’s job comprises of asking themselves the hard questions.  Though autopsy photos are a part of public record, at times a reporter has to ask themselves “what the value of releasing them would be.”  

In June 2018, Hiaasen’s brother, Rob, a newspaper writer and columnist, was gunned down in an Annapolis newsroom.  “It came at a time when there was a lot of venom and hatred being directed at journalists in this country from public officials,” Hiaasen said.  

For Hiaasen, an assault on the First Amendment isn’t about liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.  “When that guy walked into that newsroom, he did not ask to see voter registration cards.”

Feelings of animosity towards journalists are nothing new.  “We’ve never been a beloved institution in this country. It doesn’t matter the political party you are—you need a free press.  Someday, the other party is going to be in power, and all these things are going to swing back to the people on the other side.”

With global climate change, environmental reporting, like sea levels, are on the rise.  “I think it’s never been more important. It’s becoming a bigger and bigger story—not just because of the air we breathe or the water we drink but because of the weather.  Weather has changed. The weather is the number one story. Weather is where everybody runs to the TV set,” Hiaasen said. “You need to be good at all kinds of journalism to be good at environmental reporting.”

Newspapers are shrinking in size, and, in some places, disappearing altogether; however, though they are still “a credible source of information.”  

Hiaasen, however, isn’t as worried about newsrooms as he is about the Internet and “so-called citizen journalists.”  

He said, “You get your ass fired if you don’t stay out of the story, but there is no such filtering system on the Internet,” stressing the importance of editors and fact-checkers.

“The loss of good hometown reporting” was another concern.  “Forget what is happening in Washington. Forget what is happening in Tallahassee, if that’s possible.  What happens in Washington is going to get covered.”

In Miami-Dade, there are 65 municipalities, and “we used to cover all of them,” Hiaasen said.  This included city and town councils and zoning boards, but now, in some areas, “there’s nobody watching.”

To encourage subscriptions, he said, “Don’t think about big, divisive politics—think about your neighborhood.”

With everything that goes on behind closed doors, Hiaasen asked, “What happens if no one is there to tell about it?”

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