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Florida Senate to vote on shielding mass violence recordings

Bill sponsor Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, moved Thursday to narrow what records would be exempt by limiting the bill only to recordings that “show a person being killed in such incident” or show their body.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon
Published Mar. 21, 2019

TALLAHASSEE -- A bill that would block video and audio recordings or photos depicting the deaths of victims of mass violence is poised for a vote before the Florida Senate after its sponsor amended the bill Thursday to narrow the scope of the records that would be kept from public view.

Senate Bill 186 — which would apply to the deaths of three or more people, not including the perpetrator, in an incident of mass violence — has drawn outcry from open government advocates who point to records from the Parkland shooting last year that would have been blocked under this legislation.

Bill sponsor Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, moved Thursday to narrow what records would be exempt by limiting the bill only to recordings that “show a person being killed in such incident” or show their body. The prior version of the bill had cited any recordings of events that cause “or relate to” the killings of multiple people.

The amendment also clarifies the records exemption would not apply to recordings if the person who caused the deaths is a public official or employee acting in that capacity.

Lee told lawmakers that in past shootings, there had been “efforts in some cases to get this information out into the public by people who probably shouldn’t have access to it and shouldn’t be putting it out in the public eye.”

He cited the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and a January shooting in Sebring, when he told fellow senators that he had worked to craft the bill, but added he was sensitive to concerns about government transparency: “This bill has been narrowed substantially.”

The amended bill also allows surviving spouses, parents and adult children to access such records despite the public records ban — and to allow them to release those recordings to the public if they choose to do so.

The bill and its House companion, House Bill 7017, had rapidly cleared all their committee stops by the first week of session, though several lawmakers had raised concerns that the bill was too broad or too narrow.

Supporters of the bill have said the legislation will help limit the spread of recordings that could encourage similar crimes and help protect victims of families from seeing their loved ones’ deaths play out on online platforms. Opponents have contended that access is important for transparency and holding government officials accountable for actions.

The original language of the bill would have likely have blocked some of the records of the Parkland shooting, those advocates have noted. They have cited about $100,000 in legal fees that were required to obtain videos from outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that helped reveal failures in how Broward sheriff’s deputies responded to the massacre.

The bill also only pertains to government-received records. The legislation does not cover private actions, such as videos that are posted independently to websites and apps like Twitter or Snapchat. In the case of the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shooting last week that claimed 50 lives, Internet platforms like YouTube and Facebook struggled to staunch the spread of uncensored photos and videos that had been partly live-streamed by the alleged shooter as the attack took place.

Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, who chairs the committee sponsoring the House bill, had acknowledged last week before the New Zealand shooting took place that the bill “doesn’t impact at all” any private recordings that are posted online.

But he cast the bill as a “balancing act” to help limit records that do go through a government agency: “If you think about how it gets to Twitter, it’s first through the public records request. So that video becomes made public somewhere, that video then gets grabbed by somebody.”

Senators on the floor Thursday raised other concerns about the balance struck by the new bill, including Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who asked Lee if he had considered allowing the victim count in the bill to encompass those who were severely injured, not killed, in a shooting.

She cited a shooting at a Tallahassee yoga studio late last year that killed two and injured five others, noting that the father of victim Maura Binkley had testified in a committee that the bill would not cover records pertaining to his daughter’s death.

Lee said it had been considered, but that the “the whole idea was to not let perfection become the enemy of the good.” He acknowledged other public records exemptions might apply in different cases but that his bill was intended to apply to the narrow subset of cases like mass shootings the state has seen in recent years.

The bill is expected to come up for a final vote in the Senate next week.

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