Panama City News Herald Op-Ed by Barbara Petersen (First Amendment Foundation President)
June 7, 2017
I am writing in response to the Panama City Beach Proposed Resolution 17-99 and the excellent editorial, ‘Our View: PCB should not turn flame into fire’, which ran in the June 6 edition of The News Herald.
Florida has a long and rich tradition of open government and is one of the few states with both a constitutional and statutory right of access to the meetings of state agencies and local governments.
Our Sunshine Law was amended in 2013 to allow citizens a reasonable opportunity to be heard on any proposition on which a public board or commission will act. The right to speak is subject to reasonable rules or policies which allow for the orderly progression of a meeting and require orderly behavior. While the Panama City Beach Proposed Resolution 17-99 may be in technical compliance with the requirements of the right-to-speak law, we question whether the proposed resolution comports with the spirit and intent of the law.
Florida’s Sunshine Law doesn’t distinguish between types of meetings, whether regular, workshops, or special. Thus, the proposal to designate city council workshops as “special meetings” to allow official action at such meetings is not a violation of law, but is it good public policy? As noted in the Our View editorial, anyone interested in the actions of the city council will be required to attend both special meetings and regular meetings. The city council should be encouraging civic engagement rather than adopting unduly burdensome policies that serve to repress or stifle such engagement.
Equally troubling is the provision allowing the Chair to remove anyone from a council meeting for making “slanderous, personal, or impertinent” remarks during the public comment period. Who decides – the Chair? A court? Any determination based on this vague and subjective standard is constitutionally flawed under the First Amendment.
Florida law allows the recording of public meetings so long as the devices used are not obstructive. With today’s technology, a citizen or reporter can easily record a meeting with an nonobstructive handheld device. The change in policy that would allow the City Manager to restrict those who wish to record a council meeting to a “particular area of the meeting room” is nonsensical at best and may constitute a violation of law.
We urge the Panama City Beach Council to withdraw the proposed resolution and in so doing, fully embrace the spirit and intent of Florida’s famed Sunshine Law. Members of the city council are elected to represent the interests of all city residents and shouldn’t attempt to shut out the voices of those who may disagree with them and the decisions they make. A participatory democracy can be messy at times, but that is the nature of any successful democratic society.
Barbara A. Petersen
(Petersen is president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, a small non-profit based in Tallahassee that acts as an advocate of the public’s right to oversee its government through application of the state’s open government laws.) [READ MORE]