First Amendment Foundation

FAF President Barbara Petersen stands behind a podium with a microphone as she addresses the Florida Associated Press Broadcasters awards gala in Orlando on April 13, 2019. / Florida Associated Press Broadcasters

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.

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

Diimworks / Flickr

Victim rights protections under Marsy’s Law are now enshrined in the state Constitution. But many state agencies are struggling to interpret the broad language, most recently law enforcement.

Craig Waters

There is now an award named in honor of a legendary Florida journalist. The creation of the "Lucy Morgan Award for Open Government Reporting" was celebrated during a gala Wednesday (11/15) night at the Governor's Club in Tallahassee.

Open government advocates say they’ve dodged a bullet now that Governor Rick Scott has signed a compromise measure designed to squelch predatory public records lawsuits.

Open government advocates are urging Governor Rick Scott to veto a measure that would seal nearly three million criminal records from public view.

The bill started as a non-controversial proposal to crack down on internet publishers of police booking photos. But Sarasota Republican Greg Steube quietly added an amendment on the Senate Floor.

“This amendment addresses the concerns from FDLE and would enable the department to administratively seal the criminal record of a person found not guilty or where the charges against that person have been dismissed.”

Florida Channel

A bill initially aimed at protecting the witnesses to a felony crime has now gone through another change in the House, after passing a second committee.

vasabii / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Governor Rick Scott’s recent approval of three public records exemptions is drawing both criticism and praise from critics and proponents alike.

MGN Online

While one body cameras-related bill was sent to the Governor, another died amid the budget impasse between the House and Senate. But, the bill’s main sponsor says he’ll be back again next year.

  A transparency advocate is calling for an investigation into the forced resignation of the former head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Florida’s First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Peterson is asking the attorney general to investigate her own cabinet. 

Barbara Petersen insists the state owes citizens answers about allegations of Sunshine Law violations. In a letter to Pam Bondi, Petersen called for a quote “independent state attorney from outside Leon County” to investigate the ouster of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

When it comes to transparency, Florida Governor Rick Scott hasn’t always been crystal clear. So says President of the First Amendment Foundation, Barbara Petersen. She says some of that stems from the governor’s long history working in the private sector.

“We had a few bumps along the way there early in the administration if you remember," Petersen says. "We had problems getting access to the transition team e-mails and it turns out they had been deleted. The governor did a good job of trying to go back to get those e-mails – the ones he could."

Supporters of Florida’s open government laws have filed a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court attempting to overthrow state laws regarding blind trusts. 

The group says they aren’t targeting any one person, although the only current elected state official with a blind trust is Governor Rick Scott.

Sascha Cordner / WFSU-FM

In just a few months, the Jacksonville woman who inspired the so-called “Warning Shot” bill is expected to have another trial. Several activist groups rallied at the Capitol Thursday, urging Governor Rick Scott to get rid of the lead State Attorney who’s seeking a 60-year prison term in the re-trial of Marissa Alexander.

LHatter /

In the past few years, there have been several high-level vacancies at Florida’s public universities. And in many cases university trustees have expressed dissatisfaction with replacement candidates.

Such was the case at Florida A&M, where, shortly before naming Cornell University’s Elmira Mangum to the post, trustee Karl White complained about Florida’s open record laws:

“This was my 6th presidential, in some form, search. I have to say this one was the  most difficult ... based upon the constraints of the Sunshine Law," he said.

A new law aimed at paperwork reduction will allow Florida election supervisors to register voters electronically. Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the law but vetoed an exemption that would have taken those voters’ email addresses out of public record.

President of the open-government group Florida First Amendment Foundation, Barbara Peterson, applauds the veto.

“The exemption just didn’t make sense to me," she said.

Floridians will be guaranteed the right to speak at public meetings, if Gov. Rick Scott signs a bill that’s headed his way. The public comment bill passed the House on Wednesday after unanimously passing the senate.

One open government watchdog group is celebrating the Legislature’s passing what it calls the “Anti-Shushing Bill.”

Barbara Peterson, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said, “It’s not a huge bill. It’s a huge right.”

Among the bills heading to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk this week are two that create new exemptions to Florida’s public records laws. The president of a group that advocates for more open government is saying she wishes lawmakers would debate such measures more thoughtfully, and she’s urging the governor to veto them.

Floridians would be allowed to speak at all public meetings, if a bill passes the Legislature. It was one of several bills that passed out of the House Government Operations Committee on Wednesday.

The public-comment bill’s House sponsor is Ray Rodrigues (R-Fort Myers). He said, it would restore the rights people had to speak at public meetings before a 2010 court case called that into question.

With the Florida Legislative session a month away, some bills are being shaped in committees while others may never make it to a committee floor. But a watchdog group is already releasing its watchlist of legislation that it says could make government more open or more hidden.

A nonprofit organization that tries to keep Florida government transparent and accountable is releasing its watch list of the “best” and “worst” bills filed so far for this legislative session. The First Amendment Foundation announced its list at the Florida Capitol on Wednesday.

The Foundation’s "worst of the worst" is a bill filed by Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo). The bill would exempt financial records of companies that submit bids for state contracts because, it says, such openness gives an unfair advantage to competing firms.