TALLAHASSEE -- Invoking wrenching images that spread after the mass shootings in Orlando and Parkland in the last three years, House lawmakers voted Wednesday 108-6 to block government records of photos, audio and video recordings that show the deaths of victims of mass violence from the public.
The bill, Senate Bill 186, would only apply to government records depicting the deaths of three or more people, not including the perpetrator, in an incident of mass violence. Open-government advocates have criticized versions of the bill for being too restrictive, noting it might have barred video recordings from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last year that helped more clearly document the actions of Broward sheriff’s deputies, while supporters of the bill have said it takes a step toward curbing images that could traumatize loved ones.
Supporters, including House sponsor Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, say it is needed to stop images of dead victims from spreading online, even though the exemption would only block government recordings and do nothing to stop images recorded and shared by private individuals.
Grant acknowledged during discussion of the bill Tuesday night that the bill was not perfect, amid criticism from some lawmakers saying the bill was too narrow or too broad.
“In an effort to make sure we do something, this is the bill we have in front of us,” he said, reacting to one lawmaker’s concern the bill should restrict more records.
The bill must return to the Senate for final approval before it goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature.
This public records exemption is one of dozens that were proposed in this year’s session seeking to curtail the state’s open government laws. The original version of the bill had encompassed records of and relating to the deaths of people, though the Senate amended the legislation to records that directly show a person’s death or body.
The Senate also amended the legislation to define “perpetrator” to exclude a public official or an employee acting in that capacity, so the exemption would not apply in those cases. But the House late Tuesday night removed that definition from the bill in another amendment brought by Grant with little discussion.
The amended bill does still allow some surviving immediate family — such as spouses, parents and adult children — to obtain those records and share them with the public without punishment.
Though the bill and its House companion had been among the first passed through both chambers’ committees at the start of session, their hearing was delayed until the final week amid other concerns including Amendment 4 implementation.
Supporters of the bill have said the legislation could help limit graphic images or recordings online that could lead to copycat crimes and avoid subjecting loved ones to seeing those recordings spread over social media. But opponents have pointed to cases in which such records have helped media organizations and watchdogs hold governmental entities accountable, as some news organizations sought to do with Parkland recordings after last year’s shootings.
Though the bill still retains an option to challenge for records under the new exemption in court, open government advocates have also noted those cases can run up prohibitive legal costs.
As Grant noted on the House floor Tuesday night, the bill also does not pertain to recordings shot or captured by individual citizens. Many of the recordings that spread immediately after the Parkland and Pulse shootings, particularly on social media like Twitter or Snapchat, were shared independently by witnesses and would not be considered government records.
Some lawmakers pressed back on the need for the records exemption, including Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura.
“I know there are some real ghouls out there,” he acknowledged. “My heart goes out to these families that have been subject to these terrible things.”
But, he added, “the public needs to know what happened and sometimes these depictions may be an essential part of that ... the public needs to know what happened so that people can be held accountable for their failures. I think on balance that’s the more important issue here.”
Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, disagreed, citing the need to respect victims. “We talk in this chamber so much about taking care of our constituents and the people in front of us,” he said, “The dead have dignity, too.”
He added his only disagreement with the bill was that it did not exempt records depicting the deaths or bodies of all victims of intentional violence.
For the bill to clear the Legislature, the Senate must vote again on the bill before session ends this week.