In mid-September, the parents of two children killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School criticized a number of public agencies for failing to give them access to public records, such as meeting minutes, e-mails and police training exercise information related to the shooting.
They called into question Florida's "Sunshine Law," designed to guarantee that the public has access to the public records of governmental bodies in Florida.
The law gives citizens the basic right to access to any discussion of public business between two or more members of boards, commissions and other governing bodies of state and local governmental agencies.
On Tuesday, South Florida residents can learn about their right to access public records at an event at Broward College's Bailey Hall, hosted by the First Amendment Foundation. It will feature Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen, two of South Florida's most well-known journalists, and will be introduced by the Sun Sentinel's Rosemary O'Hara and moderated by WLRN's Tom Hudson.
Barbara Peterson, the president of the First Amendment Foundation, joined Sundial Monday.
WLRN: What makes Florida's Sunshine Law unique compared to other states?
Peterson: We have one of the oldest laws in the country. Our public records law codified in 1909 and our open meetings law was enacted in 1968. We are one of only six states in the country that have a specific constitutional right of access to the records and meetings of our government. And what is really important, in Florida a custodian of public records can deny your public records request or the school board can deny your participation in a school board meeting only if they have specific statutory authority. Only the legislature can create exceptions to our law, which means there's no balancing of interest by local or state government.
Let's look at Sunshine Law cases that are in play right now. Let's start with Parkland. The press, parents and others have asked for different information from the school district and from the sheriff on the parkland shooting. According to the law, how much information are the citizens allowed to have access to?
There's quite a bit actually. Any investigations of investigative records into the shooting, to the shooter, the people, the law enforcement officers and their reaction to the shooting, investigative records both internal investigations and criminal investigations those records are exempt from disclosure but only so long as the investigation is active. Once the investigation is closed, most of those records will become subject to public disclosure.
One of the big issues right after the shooting was the reaction of law enforcement. There were allegations between law enforcement agencies that some did their jobs better than others and there was the allegation that the school resource officer had not engaged the shooter. How do we as the public make sense? Who's telling us the truth? A group of media organizations and the First Amendment Foundation went to court and asked for access to the external security video that showed where the law enforcement officers were and when they were there. This was objective evidence and that allowed us to say 'Okay, you need to be held accountable because you didn't respond appropriately.' That's the point of our laws - to be able to oversee our government and hold it accountable. And the Parkland case where we were able to get security video is the importance of access to government information.