Tallahassee Democrat by Jeff Burlew
February 10, 2019
A bill in the Florida Legislature that would keep confidential photos and videos of people killed in mass shootings has sparked concern among First Amendment advocates, who say it would harm the public’s ability to scrutinize law enforcement’s handling of such incidents.
The bill (SB 186) is intended to spare family members from seeing images of their loved ones in graphic detail in the final moments of life. It was filed just days after a gunman opened fire Jan. 23 inside a SunTrust bank in Sebring, killing five people.
Filed by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the legislation would exempt from public records all photographs and videos and audio recordings that depict the deaths of people in acts of mass violence. It would apply to “all acts or events that cause or otherwise relate to the death of a person” in incidents in which three or more people, not including the perpetrator, are killed.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, wrote Lee on Thursday to express concern that the exemption could be used “to hamper and frustrate the public’s constitutional right to oversee law enforcement and hold it accountable for its actions.”
Petersen noted that the foundation joined a consortium of media outlets to sue for records involving the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which left 49 people dead and 53 injured, and the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which left 17 people dead and 17 injured.
In the Parkland shooting, she said, records revealed flaws in law enforcement’s handling of the unfolding emergency, including that deputies were slow to respond and those in command failed to take charge and gave bad direction to officers.
“Our experience in both Pulse and Parkland illustrates precisely why a government agency cannot — and should not — be counted on to police itself, and why the role of the public and the media is so critical,” she wrote.