Five Bills That Would Erode Florida's Public Records Law

Five Bills That Would Erode Florida's Public Records Law
Photo by Artie White / Flickr
click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARTIE WHITE / FLICKR
Photo by Artie White / Flickr
Florida has one of the most expansive public records laws in the nation. Yet our fearless leaders in Tallahassee don't seem too fond of it.

Gov. Rick Scott in 2015 agreed to fork over $1 million in taxpayer money to settle allegations he violated the Florida Sunshine Law by, ahem, using a private email account. New exemptions are carved out just about every year; according to the First Amendment Foundation, there are now 1,119 of them. Compare that to the 250 on the books in 1985.

This year, legislators are again intent on dismantling the public's right to know. The First Amendment Foundation is tracking 59 bills that would create new exemptions or extend existing ones, making the Sunshine State a little shadier.

We're in the midst of Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to promote transparency in government, so what better time to run through the bills that could chip away most at Florida's open-records law? Here they are:

1. House Bill 843 would allow members of a board or commission to talk about public matters behind closed doors, without notification or recorded minutes. Under the Sunshine Law, any discussion between two or more members of a public body must be open and noticed. Rep. Byron Donalds, the Naples Republican who filed the bill, claims current law hinders officials' ability to craft effective policy and gives undue influence to staff and special interests. The bill has been widely condemned as something that would obliterate the Sunshine Law.

2. As initially proposed, Senate Bill 80 would have left it up to judges to determine whether to award attorneys' fees to a person who sues after being illegally denied records, rather than being mandatory. It was filed by our friend Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican who's been busy tossing out a slew of insane proposals. The bill would make it virtually impossible for the average citizen to fight for his or her right to access public records. Steube said he was trying to target bad actors who are abusing the law. After the First Amendment Foundation weighed in, the bill was amended to maintain the part requiring fees be granted to successful litigants. It still concerns the Foundation because it requires a "preponderance of evidence" to win fees.

3. Senate Bill 968 would exempt photographs, videos, and audio recordings depicting the killing of a person. Filed by Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat from Orlando, it was reportedly spurred by the mass shootings at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Pulse nightclub, and out of concern for victims' families. But the bill would hamper the public's ability to find out what happened in incidents including fatal confrontations between law enforcement and civilians. That includes, for example, the 2015 shooting of Corey Jones by a Palm Beach Gardens Police officer, which resulted in charges because a recording contradicted the officer's story.

4. Senate Bill 478 would seal personal identifying information of applicants for president, provost, or dean of public colleges and universities in Florida, as well as close meetings held to vet candidates or establish compensation. Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, the Naples Republican who filed the bill, says it's necessary because some potential candidates might shy away from applying for fear of losing their current position. The bill, however, would hide from public view the selection process for publicly funded institutions. The First Amendment Foundation fears the bill could cause a "potential landslide" of legislation exempting applicants for all public positions.

5. House Bill 111 would conceal the identities of murder witnesses. Sponsored by Miami Democratic Reps. Cynthia Stafford and Kionne McGee, the bill is meant to encourage more witnesses to come forward. But there's no evidence witnesses are discouraged because of public records laws. And judges already have the authority to hide witness' identity. Additionally, the exemption would prevent the public from obtaining all of the information in murder cases and from being able to consider witness' character.
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brittany Shammas is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. She covered education in Naples before taking a job at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She joined New Times in 2016.
Contact: Brittany Shammas