The Florida Constitution warms your heart with these bold and fervent statements right up front in Article I:
“Every person has the right to inspect or copy any public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body, officer, or employee of the state, or persons acting on their behalf …”
“All meetings of any collegial public body of the executive branch of state government or of any collegial public body of a county, municipality, school district, or special district, at which official acts are to be taken or at which public business of such body is to be transacted or discussed, shall be open and noticed to the public …”
Sounds great so far, right?
But then the next word after the ellipses is “except,” and the exceptions allowed are exemptions specified in the Constitution or statutes.
This is the time of year when there is an awful lot of specifying and exempting going on as the Florida Legislature continues, at an increasingly feverish pace, to chip away at our open-government laws.
Already there are about 1,100 exemptions in the law, with a record 22 new ones passed last year. With additional “sunset renewals” (making an exemption permanent after five years), that was 12 percent of all bills passed in the last Legislature, as if hiding government were a strategic goal.
“We’re not chipping away, we’re pounding away,” said a discouraged Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation (on whose board I sit). “This Legislature is not listening. I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall.
“We have got major bad bills this year. In the past, we could appeal to somebody, whether it’s the House minority office or whether it’s the Senate president: ‘Please take a look at this bill; it’s a real problem.’ But these bills are passing out of committee 7-1, 17-0. This is unprecedented. When the Legislature can’t agree on anything, they manage to agree on new exemptions. I’ve never seen anything like this.
“I think there is a very strong anti-sunshine sentiment,” Petersen said. “They’re taking their cue from the top. We have a governor who doesn’t like sunshine. The agencies are more difficult to work with, and local governments.”
As if the citizen’s right to oversee his or her government were a threat. Well, I guess it is, to special interests that operate better in the shadows.
For example, one bill would have made secret the coordinates of artificial reefs that were created with the help of private donations. “You’re really rich and you like to fish, so only you would know where that reef is,” Petersen said. “Reef coordinates are all over the Web anyway. Fish and Wildlife has a whole section. That’s a stupid one. It won’t pass.”
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
Here are the most worrisome exemptions that may pass:
■ Two bills would make secret the email addresses of people who get driver’s licenses and license plates. “What this is is a nice little sound bite for the sponsors saying we protected you from identity theft,” Petersen said. “It doesn’t protect you from squat. Scammers are everywhere, and they’re not filing public records requests — they’re scraping the Web! You give your email to the store where you shop!”
■ A bill would exempt the home addresses, phone numbers and photographs of all former or current U.S. military, reserves or National Guard members who served after 9 /11, and their spouses and children. The goal was to thwart terrorists who might want to track them down, but Petersen said the problem is that the military already has put that information on the Internet. “It doesn’t do anything to protect these people,” Petersen said.
What’s the harm in exempting such information? For one very big thing, it requires records custodians to redact that information from any public record, making it even more troublesome, time-consuming and expensive for the public to get the records. Imagine records custodians’ having to go through hundreds of records and figuring out who’s a veteran or relative of a veteran.
■ Another bill would exempt from public-records disclosure recordings made by police officers’ body cams taken in a private residence, a health-care or social service facility, at the scene of a medical emergency or anyplace a person recorded has a reasonable expectation of privacy. The law-enforcement agency could release it if it were in its interest.
So if the video of the cop shooting the fleeing man in South Carolina last week had been from a police body cam, the video might not have to be released because the shooting was certainly a “medical emergency.” If the goal of body cams is to reassure the public, as well as to protect the police officer, wouldn’t locking up the video actually undermine public confidence?
You get the idea. Just as in politics, where the cover-up often is worse than the original sin, even well-intentioned attempts to hide public records can hurt democratic involvement and oversight even more than letting the information flow freely to the people who own it.
If you are offended by, or just concerned about, this incessant whittling away at open government by the legislative majority, now is the time for you to express yourself. Go to floridafaf.org for more information on those bills and many others, to get in touch with the First Amendment Foundation — and to contact your legislators.