Petersen keeps busy writing sponsors of bills the foundation opposes.

She wrote Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, to oppose HB 351, which would exempt personal identifying information of applicants for president, provost, or dean of a state college and would close meetings related to executive searches.

And she wrote Rep. Byron Donalds, also R-Naples, about HB 843, which, in an elected body of at least five members, would allow two of them to discuss public business in private “without procedural safeguards such as notice or a requirement that minutes of such discussions be taken.” She said the bill “invites pernicious mischief by our elected officials.”

Sometimes Petersen and other public records advocates win. Sometimes they don’t.

In 1981, 6-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a Broward County mall and murdered. The slaying was a watershed for how authorities respond to child abductions and made the boy’s father, John, a crime fighting advocate and longtime television host.

In 1996, four newspapers sued under the state’s open records laws. Their argument: police in Hollywood couldn’t reasonably claim the exemption that the case still was active after 15 years. Even as the Walshes and the Broward County State Attorney filed emergency motions to block the release, saying it would jeopardize the case, a judge agreed with the newspapers and the police released more than 10,000 pages of documents. They suggested drifter Otis Toole killed the boy, but Hollywood police were unable to build a strong enough case to charge him.

Even today, the case remains officially unsolved, although an investigator working with the boy’s parents made a powerful case in 2011 of what the newspapers said in 1996: Toole was the killer.

And in February 2001, auto racing legend Dale Earnhardt died when his car slammed into a wall on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Authorities later blocked news outlets’ access to autopsy photos, which were public record, and the outlets were permitted only to have an expert review the photos. They used that analysis to raise questions about how racing’s governing body, NASCAR, handled Earnhardt’s death.

During the legal battle, the Legislature passed a law exempting autopsy photos, saying they feared ghoulish images would make their way to the Internet. Newspapers argued they never do that and not giving them the photos removed their ability to question autopsy results. The ban has survived legal challenges.

Not everyone sees the Sunshine Law as an untouchable — or as always a good thing.

In 2015, Gulf Stream, east of Boynton Beach, was swamped by hundreds of public records requested from a resident who then sued when the town of about 900, with a paid office staff of six, was unable to keep up. In 2016, legislation fizzled that would have removed the requirement that government agencies pay attorney fees if they lose a public records suit. Opponents said while the intent to save small entities such as Gulf Stream was admirable, such bills would have a chilling effect on people afraid that if they sought public records and lost in court, they’d be stuck with a huge legal bill.

Similar legislation is up again this year, and again the foundation opposes it. But not Keith Rizzardi.

“In normal circumstances, the Sunshine State’s public records law is a model for ensuring the disclosure of information to the benefit of an informed citizenry,” Rizzardi, a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami, wrote for the law review of the Stetson University School of Law in St. Petersburg.

“Experience shows that the abnormal is occurring. Lacking sufficient boundaries to prevent misuses of the law, the efficiency of our bureaucracy is compromised, and taxpayers are the victims,” said Rizzardi, who worked with Gulf Stream on its case.

The professor also cited a case in Polk County, east of Tampa, in which a requester “sought to obtain the health insurance information for Polk County school employees, spouses, and children. To many, the request appeared to be a shocking invasion of privacy, but under the Florida Constitution, the right to privacy is subordinate to the right of access to public records. Indeed, the broad request, and the resulting litigation, eventually expanded to include eleven Florida school boards, and the government was compelled to respond.” [READ MORE]