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Florida's Battle Over Public-Records Access Heats Up

A coalition of Florida groups is fighting to preserve access to public records in the state. (Pixabay)
February 9. 2016
A coalition of Florida groups is fighting to preserve access to public records in the state. (Pixabay)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - While no one disputes Floridians have a constitutional right to access public documents, the debate over how to crack down on a small number of abusers of that right is much more controversial.

State law dictates if a person sues the government for violating public records access and wins, they'll be awarded costs and attorney's fees associated with the case.

But a bill in the Legislature would remove that requirement. Barbara Petersen, president with the Florida First Amendment Foundation, says the change would weaken the only public recourse in these cases.

"I can't go to the Office of Open Government and say, 'Would you take this on for me?' They don't have the power," she says. "So, the only way for people to enforce the constitutional right of access is to go to court. "

Supporters of the bill, which passed the House Appropriations Committee last week, say it would prevent so-called "economic terrorists" who extort money from governments through frivolous and misleading public-records requests. But a coalition of groups including the Florida AFL-CIO, believes it would cloud the state's Sunshine Laws.

The Senate version of the bill is on the agenda for the Judiciary Committee today.

Investigative journalist Gina Edwards is founder of the website Watchdog City, and has spent the past two years tied up in what she calls a "painful and costly" lawsuit over access to public records. She says she was only able to do so because lawyers took her case on contingency, something she fears would rarely happen if this change goes through.

"What's getting lost in this too is, it's not just important for journalists," says Edwards. "This is something that's really important to us as Floridians, to our rights as citizens, to our ability to participate in the democratic process. "

Petersen doesn't dispute there have been abuses of the system, but she feels the proposed change would have a chilling effect on the public.

"Because we have some bad actors, we're going to treat all of us with the same tainted brush, and make it much more difficult for average people to get public records," Petersen says.

The First Amendment Foundation wants the bill to require a two-day notice to the agency where records are being requested in order for any fees to be awarded. For years, the foundation also has pushed for more training on how to comply with the public-records law, and for an alternative dispute process short of going to court.

 
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