Florida allows some of the easiest access to government records and meetings of any state in the country under the state's Sunshine Laws.
People have a right to access state documents like minutes from meetings between government officials, foster care case files and environmental studies. Government meetings for the most part are open to the public for anyone to attend.
This is obviously helpful to reporters, lawyers and investigators, but these records are available to anyone who requests them.
There are exceptions, though, to this broad right: 1,119 cases at last count.
Each one of these exceptions is narrow—no social security numbers, no medical information, no identifying information about a victim of certain child abuse offenses. The state cannot refuse to release documents with this information in it, they just have to redact it (the act of physically blocking the information with a black line so it can't be read). The compiling and redaction of documents can come at a price, but that’s a whole other issue. The basic right to access remains.
Every legislative session, though, there are bills that attempt to introduce more exemptions to shield certain information from public access.
“What is missing too frequently is legislation that improves our right of access rather than chipping away at our right of access,” said Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation (FAF). The nonprofit group works to maintain access to government throughout the year in particular during the legislative session which is now in full swing.
Listen to our conversation with Petersen about the history and future of Sunshine Laws in Florida below:
Here are a few of the bills the FAF is watching during the 2017 legislative session. See a full list here.
House Bill 301 / Senate Bill 878
Florida Supreme Court Reporting Requirements: Requires the Florida Supreme Court to annually report specified information on all cases from the previous year for which a decision was not rendered, within 180 days after oral argument or the date on which the case was submitted to the court for a decision without oral argument.
HB 441 / SB 202
Court Records/Liability: Stipulates that a clerk of court is not liable for the inadvertent release of confidential information contained in a court record if the filer of the record failed to disclose the existence of such information as required by court rule.
SB 1024 / HB 381
Exemption/Homelessness Surveys: Creates a public record exemption for personal identifying information contained in homelessness surveys required by federal law.
Public Record/Reasonable Attorney Fees and Costs: Current law requires a court to award reasonable attorney fees and costs when the court finds that an agency violated the public records law. As amended, the bill would require a court to award reasonable costs of enforcement, including attorney fees, to the requestor in lawsuits brought to enforce the public records law if a court (1) determines that the agency violated the law; and (2) the requestor notified the agency’s custodian of records of the public record request five days prior to filing the lawsuit.
This bill also requires a court to determine whether the public record request was for an “improper purpose,” and, if so, requires the court to award reasonable costs of enforcement against the requestor. “Improper purpose” is defined as the filing of a request or lawsuit for the primary purpose of harassing the agency, causing a violation of the law, or for frivolous purpose.
Finally, stipulates that the public records law does not allow monetary damages.
SB 968 / HB 1115
Public Records/Killing of any Person; Expands a public records exemption for photographs, videos, or audio recordings that depict or record the killing of a law enforcement officer to include the killing of any person; expanding restrictions on the viewing, copying, listening to, or other handling of a photograph or video or audio recording that depicts the killing of any person rather than only depicting the killing of a law enforcement officer who was acting in accordance with his or her official duties.