TALLAHASSEE — House Republicans muscled a ban on the public release of 911 calls through its first obstacle Wednesday, stacking a committee to ensure passage.
The measure is a top priority for House Speaker Larry Cretul, who is pushing it on behalf of Florida Farm Bureau president John Hoblick, whose son died from an alcohol and drug overdose last year.
It would restrict the release of 911 recordings except under a court order showing "good cause." If requested, interested parties could receive a transcript at their own expense after 60 days.
Cretul temporarily appointed his top lieutenant, Rep. Ron Reagan, to the House Government Affairs Policy Committee under an obscure rule the majority party has employed three times this year to force through legislation. The extra vote didn't prove decisive — the tally ended 8-5 along party lines — but his presence and a visit from the chief GOP whip played a role.
In the 20-minute debate, Rep. Robert Schenck, the committee chairman, pushed the bill as a victim's rights measure designed to protect the privacy of 911 callers.
But the discussion dissolved into a screed against the 24/7 media and blogosphere when Rep. Kevin Ambler expressed his support.
"The real point here is this bill gets to the core of sensationalism," the Tampa Republican said. "This preserves the right to know while (eliminating) the profiteering off the sensationalism of others."
Critics say the law already bars the release of personal information, and petitioning the court or waiting for a transcript is onerous.
"It places an unnecessary barrier to the constitutionally protected right to access public records," said Courtenay Strickland with the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Barbara Petersen with the First Amendment Foundation, a media advocacy group, noted that a small percentage of 911 calls are sought and aired by the media. Far more often, the media helps expose mistakes in emergency services by examining the 911 tapes, she said.
It's a nationwide debate. In most states, there is public access to 911 recordings. Alabama, Ohio and Wisconsin are considering restrictions. Rhode Island, Maine and Pennsylvania already limit access.
House Democrats called the measure a secrecy bill, and chaffed at the idea that a powerful ally of the GOP speaker is behind it.
Hoblick insists it is a personal mission, but his organization, which is based in Cretul's district, is a potent political force and prolific campaign contributor.
State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, disputed the notion that the bill balanced accountability and privacy, noting that he problems that led to the Toyota recall came after 911 calls from drivers were aired on television. No transcript provides "that feeling and that sense and that emotion that make the difference," he said.
The bill still faces challenges. If it makes it to the House floor, it must pass by a two-thirds vote and needs the support of five Democrats. The anticipated Senate sponsor, Sen. Garrett Richter, backed out this week. "That is not on my radar right now," he said. And Gov. Charlie Crist also stands opposed.
But with the speaker's support, Schenck said he is not concerned. "I'm sure we'll work it out," he said.