Judge Allows Lawsuit Over School Safety Panel
TALLAHASSEE — A circuit judge on Wednesday refused to toss out a lawsuit alleging that a state school-safety commission created after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School violated an open-government law.
March for Our Lives Florida, the state branch of a national organization formed by students after the 2018 school shooting, Florida Student Power Network, Dream Defenders and individual plaintiffs accuse the commission of violating the state law by holding an October meeting at a “remote resort” with parking rates of $18 to $32 and deterring members of the public from speaking.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper on Wednesday refused to grant the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission’s request to dismiss the lawsuit but asked lawyers representing both sides to “see if there’s a solution to this case.”
“I leave that up to you,” the judge said. Cooper also said he was “not going to be amenable” to granting attorney fees in the case.
“This should be about notice and public hearings more than attorneys’ fees,” he said.
Florida lawmakers created the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission in a sweeping school-safety measure passed weeks after the Broward County mass shooting that killed 14 students and 3 faculty members.
The commission later made recommendations that the Republican-dominated Legislature adopted, including a controversial provision requiring all schools to have armed security on campus.
In the lawsuit filed in January, plaintiffs alleged that an October meeting at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, a resort about 30 miles from Orlando, violated state laws because it was difficult to access and some people could not afford to pay parking fees to attend the meeting. Public transportation did not reach the resort, the plaintiffs argued.
“The combined impact of all these decisions was to prevent members of the public without a car and the ability to pay at least $18 — more than two hours of labor at Florida’s minimum wage — for parking, the ability to pay for a ride, or the ability to miss hours of school or work, from exercising their rights to attend and give public comment at an important public meeting affecting the safety of Florida’s children,” lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents the plaintiffs, wrote in the 22-page complaint filed in January.
The meeting was especially important because it was the commission’s last session before releasing findings and recommendations prior to the 2020 legislative session, which began in January, the plaintiffs said.
Florida’s “Sunshine” laws advise public agencies “to avoid holding meetings in places not easily accessible to the public,” the plaintiffs said, adding that “some members of the public were chilled from attending the commission meeting by its remote location and posted parking rates.”
But in a motion to dismiss the case filed in March, attorneys for the commission said the lawsuit is based on “expansive interpretations” of state law that “are unreasonable and not intended by the Legislature to bind all state and local public bodies” subject to the government-in-the-sunshine law.
Nobody was barred from the meeting, the commission’s attorneys wrote.
The plaintiffs “misinterpret the meaning of the phrase ‘public access,’ as that term is used” in Florida law, Senior Assistant Attorney General Karen Brodeen, who represents the commission, wrote.
“To add plaintiffs’ proposed requirements to the statute would have the unintended effects of being unreasonable and unduly burdensome on state and local public bodies,” the defendants’ lawyer argued.
The law doesn’t require that public meetings be “geographically convenient to any particular groups of persons, including those who use public transportation,” Brodeen wrote.
And the statute doesn’t require meetings to “be held at locations accessible to persons who were unable to pay for car transportation, and parking rates must be free and also posted as free,” she argued.
“The commission had the authority to convene a meeting at any location in the state so long as nobody was barred in effect from attending. There is no allegation that anybody was prevented from entering the meeting facility or different classes of persons were treated differently by facility staff. Everybody was welcome,” Brodeen said.
No courts have found that the law requires free parking, Brodeen told Cooper during Wednesday’s video hearing.
“That would be preposterous,” she said.
Parking for the meeting was free, although the fee waiver wasn’t posted online, she said.
But Sam Boyd, a lawyer who represents the plaintiffs, argued that the parking fee is “economic discrimination,” similar to a public meeting held on the second floor of building without an elevator would discriminate against people with physical disabilities.
“As a practical matter, that’s a barrier to entry to people for whom that’s a significant amount of money,” Boyd said.
But the judge was unconvinced that the public meeting at the Central Florida resort was wrong.
“I think having one at a golf resort is not a good idea, but I don’t think that violates the open-meeting law,” Cooper said. “I don’t think the parking fee of $20 or $25 violates the open-meeting law. If it were a country club where only members could enter, clearly it would.”
Plaintiffs also accused the commission of pulling a “bait-and-switch” by changing the time for public comment and adjourning the meeting hours earlier than scheduled. During previous meetings, speakers criticized the commission, the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote. Ending the meeting more than two hours earlier than scheduled on the agenda deprived people from being able to weigh in on issues such as whether school guards should carry guns, the lawyers argued.
“By holding the meeting in a remote location and deceiving plaintiffs and other members of the public about when it would take public comment, the commission was able to limit and obstruct negative comments from being made on the record of its October 15-16 meeting,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued.
But Brodeen said Wednesday the commission “had the discretion” to hear public comments at the end of the meeting, rather than adjourn for nearly three hours after its other business was completed.
“There’s absolutely no mention of the word ‘agenda’ in the statute,” she said, noting that the law “just means that the public must be given an opportunity to be heard.”
“It’s up to the public board on how to conduct the public-comment period,” Brodeen argued. “All that’s required is for an open meeting to be properly noticed. … There is no requirement in the Constitution that regards the agenda.”
But Cooper said that changing the time when the public could address the panel was problematic.
“I think the issue is … when you get finished early or not, you have to make that time available for speakers because people are going to rely on that,” he said.