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Public Record Exemptions Get Moving As First Amendment Foundation Watches Warily

Among the many public exemption bills that could come up in the Florida Legislature, some could have major implications on the First Amendment rights of Florida residents.

For Rep. Anthony Sabatini, (R- Clermont) house bill 615 is personal. “I actually went to teen court myself when I was sixteen for a fist fight and now I sit on the criminal justice committee. So I’m a very firm believer in rehabilitation,” Sabatini said.

He’s a co-sponsor on Rep. Clovis Watson’s bills, and presented one measure on the Democrat’s behalf. The proposals are aimed at keeping kids out of the criminal justice system. According to a state staff analysis more than 5,000 kids would benefit should the bill pass.

One measure would allow juvenile records to be exempt from public record with certain exception. While another would extend the option to first-time offenders charged with a felony or misdemeanor, who receive a recommendation from a state attorney.

Sabatini believes that indiscretions on kids’ public records are like a “scarlet letter” and can leave a lasting impact. “We know that sometimes juveniles do things that we know that they can learn from and so keeping them out of the court system, I think is of great interest to the state,” he said.

Sabatini has opposed other public record bills. He says lawmakers should be mindful of who or what is getting a public record exemption. He’s concerned that public exemptions are happening too often.

Sabatini said, “I just think we need to come up with a criteria of which ones are good, which ones are bad. If not we’re really eroding the public records law in general.”                                     

Nearly 90 public exemption bills are pending before the legislature. One big battle emerging is a bill to conceal home addresses of lawmakers. House Speaker Jose Olvia (R-Miami Lakes) thinks this one is something to take note of, especially since he has been personally affected by it.

“During the Parkland bill tensions were very high and one person in particular put the addresses of several of our members including myself online and then we had to have police officers stationed in front of the house and so I think there are certainly times when, particularly with very controversial bills -- We live in a time of heightened anxiety -- and so I think it is something we should at least look at,” Olvia said.

Concerns are high among organizations like the First Amendment Foundation. President Pamela Marsh says that these laws “poke holes” in the state’s open government rules and breeds distrust among government, people, and the press.

“Every time they chip away the public records laws, those freedoms and rights to participate and to have a voice are lessened,” Marsh said. “We are prevented from really knowing what our government is doing so therefore we are not as able to hold the government accountable.”

The First Amendment Foundation is not against every exemption proposal. It’s taking a neutral position on a bill to continue police body camera footage exemptions. It prohibits the public viewing and use of body camera footage filmed in private spaces. This bill is backed by Rep. Jason Shoaf (R-Port St. Joe).

“House Bill 7015 saves from repeal the public record exemption of body camera recordings taken within the interior of a private residence, within the interior of a facility that offers healthcare, mental healthcare, or social services, and in the place that a ‘reasonable’ person would expect to be private and that is the bill,” Shoaf said.

The bill is moving forward. If it passes, the current police body camera exemptions will no longer expire at the end of the year.