Gainesville Sun Editorial
March 12, 2017
The most insidious thing about public records exemptions is that they sometimes seem so reasonable.
Examples can be seen in some exemptions that the Florida Legislature is considering this session. Bills aimed at preventing attorneys from abusing the records law for profit, barring the release of videos showing killings and withholding the names of murder witnesses might appear to some as fair solutions to real problems.
But further investigation finds the laws erode the public’s right to know on critical issues. As the annual celebration of government openness known as Sunshine Week starts today, groups such as the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation are again fighting a long list of proposed exemptions to public records and open meetings law.
“At first blush, some of this stuff looks reasonable,” said Barbara Petersen, the foundation’s president. But she said that “the devil’s in the details.”
Florida’s Sunshine Law is meant to ensure government business is conducted in public view and the public has access to official documents. But the Legislature has created more than 1,100 exemptions to the law and is considering another 56 bills this year, most of which would make it harder for the public to access information, Petersen said.
Perhaps the worst is SB 80, which would give judges more discretion in awarding attorney’s fees in public-records lawsuits. The measure is intended to stop attorneys from profiting by filing records requests with low-level government employees and then suing if they don’t get a response.
But the bill would affect all citizens by removing the requirement that fees be awarded in successful suits, taking away the best leverage the average person has in getting legitimate requests honored. A supposed compromise passed by a committee last week makes matters worse, requiring the person seeking the fees to basically prove criminal intent by the agency in order to get them.
Petersen said an actual compromise bill, SB 246, would address the issue by requiring requests to be made with the custodian of records at least five days before a suit is filed.
Another measure, SB 968, would prohibit the release of a photo, video or audio recording of the “killing of a person” in Florida. While such recordings are surely painful for victims’ families, barring their release would keep incidents such as shootings by police from public view — making it harder to determine if such actions were justified.
SB 550/HB 111 would exempt murder witness’ identities from disclosure for up to two years after the crime. While proponents argue it would prevent retaliation against witnesses, Peterson said they’ve provided no evidence current law is causing that problem.
Other exemptions are even more clear-cut in impeding the public’s right to know. HB 843 would allow two members of a board or commission to discuss public businesses behind closed doors. Requiring meetings of two or more elected officials to be noticed and open to the public is at the core of the Sunshine Law.
At least one measure would actually improve the law. SB 1502 would ensure the costs of contracts such as the Visit Florida agreement with the rapper Pitbull are publicly available.
Following changes to the law can be confusing. Petersen is helping the Florida Society of News Editors make things easier to understand by developing a system grading lawmakers on votes affecting government openness.
The best way to stop unnecessary exemptions is for the public to “pay attention — and let your legislators know,” she said.
— This editorial was written by Gainesville Sun opinion editor Nathan Crabbe and represents the opinion of The Sun’s editorial board.