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Florida First Amendment Foundation fights exemptions to sunshine laws

TALLAHASSEE — She comes from a family of educators. Grew up having people say her mother the school administrator was the nicest person in the world on one day, then say, "oh, man, your momma would give me (a) swat" the next.

"Back then," said state Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, "they just hated it and (then) they went on."

These days, "we have people who act irrationally," which is why she's sponsoring HB409, that she says would protect teachers from retribution.

The bill would give public records exemptions to all current and former employees of public education institutions, their spouses and children. That means all personal identifying information — name, Social Security number, home address, telephone number and photograph — and personal health information of the employees, their spouses and children would be withheld from public record.

"I said to myself, the one group that is on the front line every single day are our teachers and our administrators and those who are educating our kids," said Jones, a freshman member of the state House of Representatives. "I felt that providing them with some protection was not too much to ask."

Jones' bill is a chief target of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, which tracks legislation aimed at the state's strong history of open public records. That history is being celebrated this week as part of Sunshine Week, organized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

"What are they thinking?" screams a release from the First Amendment Foundation about Jones' bill, which has a companion (SB1260) sponsored by Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, and Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "Anonymous teachers? Administrators? School board members?????" the release said.

"If they want to just exempt their personal health information, fine," said foundation director Adria Harper, pointing out the "very broad" exemption outlined in the bill. "But it's not just that. … it's personal identifying information, which includes their name."

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has a bill with a narrower exemption, though the foundation opposes it, too.

His legislation, SB468, would exclude from public records all health and benefit information related to school employees, their spouses and dependents.

"We were careful about that," said the Senate president pro tempore. "Because we didn't want to shut the door. Florida, you know, because of our Sunshine Laws, and our transparency, we want to do anything we can to keep that open, but close the door once in a while to make sure the public is protected."

Other bills raising the ire of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation this legislative session:

• SB440, also sponsored by Fasano, would exempt records on patients, health care providers and pharmacists related to Fasano's proposed prescription drug database, that would track usage of certain medications. "Public record exemption is key to being able to implement it," Fasano said. But Harper says the foundation is concerned about the lack of accountability in not seeing doctors' or pharmacists' information.

• SB1488 from Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, which would create an exemption for the cell phone numbers and all phone records of current and former law enforcement personnel, and employees of some state agencies and local governments. "We fundamentally believe that cell phones that are publicly paid for or being used to conduct public business should be made available," Harper said.

• SB636 from Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and its companion, HB277 from Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, which would exempt crime scene photographs or videos of the dead and seriously injured from public view except by relative or through court order.

Former legislator Curt Kiser lobbies against many public records exemptions on behalf of the Florida Press Association.

On Wednesday, he took the podium at the Senate Higher Education Policy Committee to argue against a bill that would create an exemption for people who make donations to public buildings or facilities (prospective donors, too). Kiser told the committee that such private records would make it impossible to investigate whether donors were illegally benefiting from their gifts.

The argument appeared to fall on deaf ears, with many members talking through his testimony. Within minutes, the measure moved forward on a 4-0 vote.

Kiser was not surprised, nor discouraged.

"There's a lot of them out there," Kiser said of the public records exemption bills, "but a lot of them don't make it though."

Amy Hollyfield can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]

Florida First Amendment Foundation fights exemptions to sunshine laws 03/14/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 16, 2009 11:20am]
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