Floridians shouldn’t have to worry about being sued for exercising their legal right to obtain public records.
Florida’s public records law is supposed to help keep government accountable to taxpayers. But in two high-profile cases in recent years, citizens seeking to obtain records have been dragged into costly legal battles with government agencies.
After the South Florida Water Management District approved a multi-million-dollar settlement with a rock-mining company in a closed-door session in 2017, the nonprofit Everglades Law Center requested the minutes of the session. The district responded by filing a preemptive lawsuit, asking a judge to declare the records exempt from disclosure.
A similar situation happened when news outlets requested documents related to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting from the city of Orlando. State and local governments alike should be banned from using such tactics, which would happen if a measure being considered by the Legislature for the third year is finally passed.
House Bill 195 would make it illegal for any local or state government agency to sue members of the public for requesting records. The measure, introduced by state Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, received unanimous approval from a House subcommittee last month.
Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, has introduced similar legislation that would be a step in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough. Senate Bill 162 would require government agencies to pay the legal fees of someone seeking a record, if the agency brings the matter to court and a judge determines that the record shouldn’t be exempted from disclosure.
People shouldn’t have to pay those legal bills in the first place. Government agencies should cite a legal exemption to a public records request if one exists, not immediately go to court.
“It’s a form of harassment,” Frank LoMonte, director of the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, told GateHouse Media last year. “People can just seek a public record and find themselves suddenly dragged into court.”
LoMonte’s center works to educate the public on issues related to open government, which he will be doing this week in a workshop for Gainesville residents. The Freedom of Information Workshop is Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Chesterfield Smith Memorial Classroom at the UF Levin College of Law.
The event is free and open to the public, and meant to provide a way for residents to learn about how to best obtain records from local government. Visit http://bit.ly/freedomofinformationworkshop for more information and to RSVP.
Other participants include representatives from the Gainesville City Clerk’s office and the Gainesville Police Department, who will be discussing how to obtain records from them. This is exactly the kind of approach that government officials should be taking to public records: making it easier, not harder, to obtain them.
We hope that local residents will take advantage of the workshop, and that the Legislature will help ensure other jurisdictions are more accommodating with records requests.
— The Sun editorial board consists of Publisher Rynni Henderson, Executive Editor Douglas Ray and Opinion Editor Nathan Crabbe.