1. Opinion

Editorial: A setback for public records

A Florida appeals court has made it easier for government to deny access to public records without providing a clear explanation. The 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee has ruled that the Department of Corrections was not required to cite specific exemptions in the state's broad public records law each time it redacted parts of internal reports before releasing them. If a government agency can take a black marker to a stack of documents without clearly explaining why the public isn't entitled to the information, it can easily circumvent the state's open records laws.

In 2014 and 2015, the Miami Herald requested paper records and video from the Department of Corrections on inmate deaths as part of its investigation "Cruel and Unusual." The agency turned over 76 pages of heavily redacted reports and attached a preprinted list of 33 exemptions to the public records law, putting a check mark next to five exemptions it claimed applied. (The DOC refused to supply any video footage at all.) The exemptions included inmates' medical records, information relating to prison security and active criminal investigations. With more than 500 individual redactions, there is no way to know which exemption applies to which redaction — and no practical way of challenging them.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge George S. Reynolds initially agreed with the DOC that state law doesn't require a citation for each individual reaction. Then he wisely reversed himself four months later. State law requires that agencies state "with particularity" why records should be withheld.

The appellate court opinion jeopardizes that balance. While acknowledging that the law should be "construed liberally in favor of the state's policy of open government," the three-judge panel decided that state agencies only have to provide exemptions record-by-record, not redaction-by-redaction. But when agency records run into the hundreds or thousands of pages, as they often do, it's easy to see how a broad, blanket claim of exemption is essentially meaningless. It also creates a gaping potential for abuse. The trial judge recognized this, writing that by requiring point-by-point explanations government staffers can't simply "take a black magic marker and strike through words and let that be the end of it."

What's at stake is much more than a matter of paperwork. Over two years and more than a dozen articles, the Miami Herald uncovered beatings, suicides, abuse and deaths inside Florida's prisons. The work depicted a culture of violence and deteriorating conditions, exacerbated by years of underfunding. All of it came to light through public records, which the DOC no doubt would have preferred be left in a file cabinet. Florida's open records law is what allowed in the light.

Government entities have too much interest in covering up their own mismanagement and misdeeds to be trusted to adhere to the letter and spirit of open records laws. They must prove why any portion of a public record should be shielded from the public. There are limited grounds under which the state Supreme Court could take up the Herald's case, so it may be up to the full 1st DCA to right this wrong and protect Florida's tradition of open government.