For 25 years, Barbara Petersen has served as president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation (FAF). She’s been on a continuous quest to keep government dealings in the sunshine and hold lawmakers accountable when they withhold records from the public.
She’s retiring from the job at the end of the year. Her replacement is Pamela Marsh, a former US Attorney in North Florida.
We recently spoke with Petersen about what’s at stake as a new leader is ready to take up the cause.
WFSU: Why is the First Amendment Foundation’s mission so important?
Petersen: The First Amendment Foundation is the only organization in Florida that focuses all of its efforts and all of its resources on making sure that our government remains open and accountable to us, and the way we do that is through access to public records….Unfortunately, our legislature doesn’t quite get it. Every year they pass new exceptions to our constitutional right of access. Right now, there are over 1,100 exceptions to that right of access. Every exemption is an exception to the Constitution.
WFSU: Do you think that most people understand what the first amendment does?
Petersen: I think most people do not understand the complexity and the importance of the First Amendment….If we don’t like what our government is doing, the First Amendment protects our right to tell those people in power that we don’t like what they’re doing.
WFSU: You are leaving at a time when journalists are being attacked for their work. What can you tell reporters and people who are just seeking the truth?
Petersen: You can’t overstate the importance of a free and independent media….Be tenacious. Keep at it because we completely depend on you, the media, to help us understand what’s going on in what is a very chaotic time. For the citizens, I would say get your news from a variety of sources, make up your own minds, and keep an eye on your government. Hold your government accountable for its actions.
WFSU: You’ve been a great source for journalists. You’ve spoken often to groups like the Florida Associated Press Broadcasters. What messages do you always make sure to relay when you talk to these groups?
Petersen: Pay attention. When you get public records, read them. And I thank them for the work they do.