Members of the Florida House and Senate attempted to block access to more than 50 additional types of public records this legislative session; information used by investigative reporters like Historic City News and other businesses.
Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law has been a model of open government, open meetings, and open records laws in other states across the country; but, the threat of new exemptions during each new legislative session is cause for concern.
“The fact that lawmakers agreed to pass so many exemptions to our constitutional right of access is disheartening,” Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation observed.
Legislation, if signed into law by Governor Rick Scott, will shield thirteen new types of records from public view. The Constitution requires lawmakers to enact exemptions that must specify the public necessity justifying the exemption.
Chapter 119 F.S. must be liberally construed in favor of open government, according to a guide published by Attorney General Pam Bondi. To be lawful, any exemption that limits public access to otherwise open records, must be narrowly tailored to accomplish its goal. Exemptions are to be strictly construed so they are limited to their stated purpose.
That said, this session determined that e-mail addresses provided to public agencies, addresses and phone numbers of post-9/11 military veterans, and video footage from police body cameras — but only if the recording was made in a location where there was a reasonable expectation of privacy, rose to the level of “public necessity”. For example, email addresses kept by county tax collectors and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles would be exempted from public disclosure under the new law, if enacted.
Before the legislative session started, Petersen said the e-mail exemptions could have wide-reaching impact, even though the bill has a narrow focus.
“If the justification for this exemption is true, then it applies to every e-mail address held by any government agency,” Petersen said. “It’s kind of like the Mount Everest of slippery slopes.”
However, when the Florida House unexpectedly left the Capitol three days early — they disrupted, in midstream, what could have been a devastating session for open government laws. Dozens of proposals were dropped.
Petersen said, “thanks to dysfunction” the Legislature was unable to exempt from public disclosure the names of people vying for the top jobs at state colleges and universities or surveillance video from public buildings owned by community development districts.
Petersen wasn’t ready to declare victory for open-government advocates, however. Lawmakers still succeeded in passing 13 exemptions. “It could’ve been a whole lot worse,” she said. Petersen is hopeful that Governor Scott will exercise his power to veto some if not all of the proposed exemptions.
Original article here.