Politics ain’t beanbag, but we live in a volatile time when people are triggered to violence by red baseball caps or mere words.
A month after Donald Trump became president, The Washington Post drafted a slogan for the first time in the newspaper’s 140-year history. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Post averred on its masthead.
Floridians understood that long before the Post crafted its four-word testament to openness. State lawmakers enshrined transparency in government as early as 1909, enacting a law declaring that “state, county and municipal records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection of any citizen of Florida, and those in charge of such records shall not refuse this privilege to any citizen.”
Lawmakers added a guarantee to enter government meetings in 1967. And this combination of access to documents and meetings - commonly known as Florida’s Sunshine Laws - has been incorporated into our state Constitution and reaffirmed periodically over the past 50 years.
Our Sunshine Laws are the model that should be adopted by all states.
Lawmakers, however, have chipped away at that access. The Legislature, with various governors’ consent, has established more than 1,100 exemptions to our Sunshine Laws, retracting in piecemeal the covenant their forefathers adopted a century ago.
More exemptions will come up for consideration next year, and state Sen. Kelli Stargel has contributed to the mix.
The Lakeland Republican has proposed a bill that would exempt from disclosure the home addresses, telephone numbers and dates of birth of current lawmakers and Cabinet officers. It also would block access to the names, home addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth and places of employment of these officials’ spouses and children, as well as the names and locations of their schools and daycare facilities.
Stargel’s bill (SB 832) declares it a “public necessity” to keep this information secret. “Members of the Legislature and the Cabinet are often confronted with making difficult and impactful policy decisions,” the measure says. “As a result, legislators and Cabinet officers, and their families, may receive threats including, but not limited to, verbal threats, harassment, and intimidation as a result of carrying out their official duties.”
“Vulnerability to such threats may discourage residents of this state from seeking elected office in order to protect themselves and their families,” it adds. “The Legislature further finds that the harm that may result from the release of such personal identifying and location information outweighs any public benefit that may be derived from the disclosure of the information.”
Normally, our initial reaction to this legislation would be as it always is when lawmakers want to hide information from the public: reject this bill, urge lawmakers to vote it down and tell Stargel, her colleagues and anyone pondering a bid for elected office to grow thicker skin. Politics ain’t beanbag, as the journalist Finley Peter Dunne once observed.
But in the age of “The Resistance,” Antifa and open threats to leaders, Stargel’s bill gives us pause.
For example, the ultimate expression of what Stargel refers to came in June 2017. Then, in Virginia, a Sen. Bernie Sanders supporter opened fire at GOP lawmakers practicing baseball, wounding a handful of people, including Rep. Steve Scalise near fatally, before police killed him. That came amid repeated public incidents of mock assassinations of President Trump. In April 2018 Alabama GOP Rep. Mo Brooks suggested the threat of assassination could have led several Republicans to retire from Congress last year.
Additionally, several GOP lawmakers and officials in the Trump administration have been confronted by angry mobs in public eateries. And Democrats have encouraged this. Last year California Rep. Maxine Waters told a crowd that Trump Cabinet members are “not going to be able to go to a restaurant, they're not going to be able to stop at a gas station, they're not going to be able to shop at a department store, the people are going to turn on them, they're going to protest, they're going to absolutely harass them until they decide that they're going to tell the president ’No I can't hang with you.’” A short time later, Sen. Cory Booker delivered a speech encouraging followers, “Go to the Hill today. ... and please get up in the face of some congresspeople."
Directly to Stargel’s point, in August, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was recovering from a shoulder fracture, about two dozen protesters showed up outside his home. At one point one told another someone should “just stab” McConnell “in the heart.”
We’re not ready to endorse Stargel’s bill and wall off public information until we hear more debate.
But we certainly understand her desire to reduce the risk of physical harm. In a volatile time when some people are triggered to violence by red baseball caps or mere words, we can see how lawmakers would consider the restrictions that she proposes - as Thomas Paine viewed government itself - a necessary evil.