By Bobby Block
National Sunshine Week has been celebrated every March since 2005. It is supposed to be a celebration of your right as a citizen to know and see the inner workings of government.
While a national event, the week has its roots here in Florida in 2002, when newspapers and broadcasters used to gather in Tallahassee for “Sunshine Sunday” to celebrate Florida’s expansive traditions of access to public record and open government.
Florida’s law making government records open to public inspection dates back to 1909. Then, 68 years later, 1967, the state passed the Sunshine Law requiring open government meetings. And in 1992, Floridians approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a public right to access records and meetings.
The First Amendment Foundation would normally play an active role in Sunshine Week, organizing various events, webinars, and training sessions aimed at educating the public and journalists on how to obtain access to government records and meetings.
But much has changed recently and there isn’t much to celebrate in Florida in 2023 when it comes to Sunshine.
Over the years, the Florida Legislature has steadily eroded the reach of public records access by expanding the numbers of exemptions to what public records the public can see.
The 2023 legislative session is continuing this practice of moving more information into the shade. On top of this trend, it introduced a slew of bills attempting to stifle not just what the public can know, but what they can say, print, post or broadcast.
There are currently 85 bills and other actions in the state legislature that withhold or reinstate exemptions that withhold information from the public.
Then there is the effort by the state to undercut a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it difficult for public officials to use defamation lawsuits to punish their critics.
At the same time, news reports have shown that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office is one of the worst public records offenders by slow rolling its responses to requests for information.
The situation is so bad that this year the First Amendment Foundation celebrated Sunshine Week by meeting with lawyers and testifying against HB991, the bill that would make it easier for public officials to sue critics.
Sunshine just ain’t what it used to be in the Sunshine State.