Court proceedings are open to the public, and anyone can take a seat and hear a trial. But when a member of the public or the media wants a copy of the electronic recording of that same proceeding, suddenly there is a problem. A ruling earlier this month by the state appellate court covering the Tampa Bay area says audio recordings are not public records and don't have to be made available upon request. The ruling is at odds with Florida's commitment to openness, and it has broad implications for the right of the public to be informed of what transpires in the state's courts. It is up to the state Supreme Court to correct the situation.
In Media General Operations, Inc. vs. the State of Florida, the 2nd District Court of Appeal refused to order Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Robert Morris to turn over an audio recording of a sentencing hearing to a Tampa Tribune reporter. The three-judge panel gave no weight to the important public interest served by ensuring access to court proceedings by making recordings widely available. The judges were too busy holding back access on narrow technical grounds of what constitutes a public record.
An appeal is expected to the state Supreme Court. The court already is reviewing a statewide rule change that would adopt the appellate court's view that electronic records of court proceedings are not public. The court should reject the rule change and reverse the appellate court decision.
Electronic recordings have replaced court reporters in many courtrooms around the state. The recordings are later transcribed for the official court record. In addition to being efficient, audio recordings allow people not in attendance to access the proceedings in a way that includes hearing the vocal nuances of witnesses, lawyers and judges — something you can't get by reading a transcript. For the media, the recordings allow the quick and accurate reporting on cases of public interest.
Opponents of making the audio recordings available fear that they pick up ambient conversations as well as confidential discussions between an attorney and client. But the state's public defenders say the electronic capture of confidential communications is very rare. The microphones allow attorneys to hit mute for any private conversation, which mitigates concern of inadvertent recording. If necessary, specific recordings where attorneys worry that confidential matters were disclosed can be edited before release.
Florida's commitment to government in the sunshine includes the state courts. Audio recordings provide the fastest and most complete record of a court proceeding, and the public and press should be allowed to listen in.