Public records advocate opposes public records exemptions passed by Legislature

Second highest number of exemptions OKed since '95
Posted at 7:35 PM, May 19, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-19 20:34:23-04

"It's one of the worst I've seen," says Barbara Petersen, president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation.

Her frustration stems from this year's legislative results regarding exemptions to the state's public records laws.

Petersen believes doors are closing on open government.

"It's a concern, and it's a continuing concern," Petersen says.

In the recent legislative session, state lawmakers passed 17 exemptions to public records laws.

According to Petersen's records, it was the second highest amount of exemptions since 1995.

The record was set in 2014, when 22 exemptions passed.  The average is about 10 a year.

"But in terms of volume, it was almost 12% of all the bills passed by the Legislature, so they can't agree on school funding," Petersen says. "They can't agree on medical marijuana, gaming, but it seems they can agree on chipping away at our constitutional right of access to government information."

Petersen agrees some exemptions are justified but many aren't.

Her biggest concern with this year's exemptions, Senate Bill 118, which she said will keep the public from viewing criminal history records, if a person is found not guilty or acquitted.

Petersen argues there are many reasons a case can be tossed such as perhaps the victim didn't want to to press charges.

She says in cases such as O.J. Simpson, George Zimmerman and Casey Anthony, the new exemptions would have sealed information, if they were in existence at the time.

"That means if you want to hire a babysitter or a clerk to work in your store you would go to the FDLE website search for the name and they won't pop up," Petersen says referring to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran entered the legislative session declaring more transparency. Corcoran said he was not concerned.

"The question is, are you protecting the publics interest," Corcoran says. "Does the public who has an absolute right to know how their taxpayer money is being spent, is that right? And is that knowledge being protected? And it absolutely is."

Petersen says the public should pay close attention to who's proposing these exemptions and why, because it ultimately affects your access to records.

She says in 1985 there were about 250 exemptions to Sunshine Laws. There now are more than 1,000.

"The last time the Legislature did anything to improve our public records laws, to enhance our right of access, was in 1995, and that tells you something," Petersen says.

This year is the first year ever the First Amendment Foundation is calling on the governor to veto this year's budget. Not because of any specific policies, Petersen says, but rather because major policy changes were agreed to in secret behind closed doors.

Florida's First Amendment Foundation has been around since 1983.