First Amendment Foundation Tracks New Public Record Exemption Bills

May 9, 2019

First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen addresses gathering of Florida Associated Press broadcasters in Orlando.
Credit Florida Associated Press Broadcasters

The First Amendment Foundation (FAF) in Tallahassee keeps watch over policy discussions that could impede the public’s right to know about government business.

“We track all bills that affect the public’s ability to oversee government and hold it accountable," says FAF president Barbara Petersen.

The foundation tracked 111 bills this year that would create new open government exemptions or extend current exemptions. 25 of them passed.

Petersen wrote the governor a letter asking him to veto an expansion of a law that keeps the home addresses of certain government employees out of the public eye, like judges and law enforcement officers. Petersen says the new law defines “home address” to include all descriptions of the property.

“Say you want to make sure that the chief of police is getting the same treatment from code enforcement that you are, and you go to check the property records to see if there are any liens against his home,” Petersen says. “You won’t have any property descriptors; you won’t know where his home is.”

Florida has more than 1,100 exemptions to open government laws on the books. Petersen says every exemption makes government less transparent.

She doesn’t like part of a massive criminal justice reform bill that automatically seals the criminal history records of anyone who has charges against them dropped or who is found not guilty. She says charges are dropped for many reasons, and the records are only being sealed at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement - not at the county level.

“If we’re going to automatically seal these records, we could have a serial sexual predator going from county to county to county, and we would never know.”

There were small victories, she says, like the failure of a bill that would have protected the names of foster parents.

Then, there is one bill that she says should have been approved -- that wasn’t even considered.

“Marsy’s Law says a victim has the right to protect information that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim’s family.” Petersen says an enacting bill would have provided guidelines for enforcing the constitutional amendment known as Marsy’s Law. It was approved by voters last November.

For now, law enforcement agencies have different interpretations of the amendment.

It makes it harder for me to protect myself and my family. ~Barbara Petersen

“Some law enforcement agencies aren’t reporting any information, just that there was a shooting somewhere in your city,” Petersen says. “It makes it harder for me to protect myself and my family. If I know that there’s a string of sexual assaults in my neighborhood park, I’m less likely to let my children go play in that park unaccompanied. I’m going to be more careful myself.”

Petersen says law enforcers need some clarity because the haphazard response to Marsy’s Law is a safety issue.

“Because the legislature didn’t do anything this session, I believe a court will have to decide because there are law enforcement agencies who I’m hearing about who are saying please sue us so that we know what this means,” Petersen says.

None of the bills the foundation supported passed, such as legislation to prevent a state agency from filing civil action against someone who submits a public records request.