The News-Press Editorial
October 2, 2017
Anytime the Florida Legislature wants to strengthen the state’s Sunshine Law and protect a person’s right to public information, we cheer. That’s because, many times, the lawmakers are trying to weaken what we consider fundamental and necessary rights to public records.
House Majority Leader Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, has filed a bill that will keep public agencies in charge of public information from retaliation against a citizen, who has made a public records request.
What has been occurring in Florida and in other states is a scheme to sue the person who makes the public records request. Typically, when there is a request, the agency will either provide the information or tell the person who made the request the information is exempt from public records. The agency must provide a reason for the exemption. What’s happening now is rather than just denying the request and citing the reason, agencies are taking the person who made the request to civil court, seeking money.
Of course, this is a deliberate attempt to dissuade people from making a good faith request, knowing they could be sued for their efforts. Rodrigues’ bill would prohibit an agency from taking civil action.
Florida was the first state to enact the important Sunshine Law over 40 years ago for the specific purpose of openness and accountability among public and elected officials. Media groups, including The News-Press, have fought long and hard against any legislation that attempts to create exemptions to public records, and we will continue to do so.
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Florida is not experiencing a flood of cases related to Rodrigues’ bill, but there have been some, according to a conversation he had with First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen. Getting ahead of a potential public records nightmare for individuals is smart on Rodrigues’ part. No public agency should be armed with the ability to threaten civil action for a public records request. It’s simple: Any agency either provides the information requested or denies with justification.
Each year, we grimace at the number of bills filed that add more exemptions to public records. Most are deliberate attempts to help public agencies keep open records closed.
The Rodrigues bill will no doubt run into challenges from his colleagues. Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, is supposed to sponsor the bill on the Senate side, according to Rodrigues. Currently, the bill resides in the House Oversight, Transparency & Administration Subcommittee for review. If the bill keeps moving through committees, it will eventually go to the House and Senate chambers for votes and hopefully to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature early next year.
“I do think it strengthens government and Sunshine statues,” Rodrigues told The News-Press editorial board on Thursday.
This bill protects Florida residents and allows Sunshine to do what it’s meant to do: Provide public records that keep openness and accountability in place. [READ MORE]