Despite session's early end, Florida lawmakers pass 13 public records exemptions

“It could’ve been a whole lot worse,” said Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation.
“It could’ve been a whole lot worse,” said Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation.
Published May 9, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — When the Florida House unexpectedly left the Capitol three days early, it disrupted midstream what critics say could have been a devastating session for open-government laws.

Dozens of proposals were dropped. The Legislature was unable to exempt from public disclosure the names of people vying for top jobs at state colleges and universities or surveillance video from public buildings owned by community development districts.

Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, wasn't ready to declare victory for open-government advocates, however.

That's because lawmakers succeeded in passing 13 of the more than 50 proposed exemptions to public records laws.

Now awaiting a signature or veto from Gov. Rick Scott are bills shielding email addresses provided to public agencies, contact information for post-9/11 military veterans and video from police body cameras taken in certain places.

The fact that lawmakers agreed to pass so many exemptions "to our constitutional right of access" is disheartening, Petersen said. But she seized on a bright side.

"It could've been a whole lot worse," she said, "but only thanks to dysfunction."

One piece of legislation that passed — despite a rash of concerned editorials in many of the state's newspapers — was a plan to shield from public view some video recordings from police body cameras.

Supporters say the bill was never intended to make it harder for people to access evidence of police using excessive force. Rather, they argue, the protections could encourage police departments to use cameras.

"A lot of people thought we were trying to block totally what the public had access to," said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, who was a key House supporter of the bill. "But that's not what the bill intended or what the bill actually said."

The language awaiting Scott's approval was made narrower in the Senate, but it still protects video that is recorded in homes, hospitals, social services facilities and any other place that "a reasonable person would expect to be private." Those who wanted to see the video, other than police and the people in the video, would have to have a judge's approval.

First Amendment supporters say the bill is overly broad, reaching into places where there's normally no expectation of privacy, such as hospital lobbies.

Jones, an advocate for more body cameras, disagrees. In hospitals, where there are always other people watching, police officers aren't going to attack anyone, he said.

Also on tap to be exempt from public disclosure: email addresses kept by county tax collectors and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Supporters say they want to protect privacy and prevent identity theft. Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, tells a story about his neighbor, who answered the door to an insurance salesman trying to sell a policy to his wife a year after she died.

The salesman got her name and contact information from public records, he said.

Before the legislative session started, Petersen said this exemption could have wide-reaching impact, even though the bill has a narrow focus.

"If the justification for this exemption is true, then it applies to every email address held by any government agency," she said. "It's kind of like the Mount Everest of slippery slopes."

Looking to next year

The House's unexpected departure helped derail a number of proposed public records exemptions.

Among them is a bill by Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, that would have shielded surveillance video from community development districts. He said the video is being used by third parties to gather license plate and other data about passers-by.

Another, sponsored by Clearwater Republicans Sen. Jack Latvala and his son, Rep. Chris Latvala, would have kept most biographical information about police officers and other public officials shielded.

A proposal by Hays would have kept secret the names of people who apply for top leadership jobs at state colleges and universities. Hays argues universities and colleges could attract better-qualified applicants who might not want their current employers to know they're interested in a new job.

Many of these could return, including Hays' bill. The senator says his philosophy is that not every record needs to be publicly available.

"I think if there is a need to know, then fine," Hays said.

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.