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Advocates say lawmakers are chipping away at Florida's Sunshine Laws

Open-government advocates say Florida lawmakers have steadily chipped away at the state's Sunshine Laws
Alon Harel/hafakot
Open-government advocates say Florida lawmakers have steadily chipped away at the state's Sunshine Laws

Supporters of open government in Florida had a rough legislative session, with roughly 20 more exemptions to Florida’s once-honored Sunshine Laws.

The state is known for its broad open records and public meeting laws, known as Sunshine Laws. But Florida First Amendment Foundation Director Bobby Block says lawmakers have steadily chipped away at them, especially under Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration.

“It appears to be an almost slavish devotion to the ambitions of Gov. DeSantis," Block said, "and at the same time a complete disregard for rights of free speech, for rights of information and transparency.”

Barbara Petersen leads the Florida Center for Government Accountability. She figures the Legislature approved 20 exemptions this year.

“That these things are passing with so little discussion or debate -- it’s heart-wrenching," Petersen said. "Because these are not just exemptions to the public records law, but exceptions to our Constitution, because we have a constitutional right to the records and meetings of our government.”

Block and Petersen are alarmed by the public records exemption for all of DeSantis’s movements, on the state plane, for anyone to whom he loans the plane and whomever visits him in Tallahassee. It’s also retroactive -- so all standing public records requests are out the window.

Petersen calls it the 800-pound gorilla of the session.

“Former senator Dan Gelber said this is death by a thousand paper cuts, death to the public records law," she said. "Given the large number of exemptions and that travel exemption, this is more like a shredder.”

The exemptions range from innocuous to concerning. One shields the autopsy reports of children who may have died of abuse. The Rex and Brody Act bans the release of photos, audio or video when a child is killed. Another exemption blocks the release of records tied to amusement ride investigations.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.