Magazine article The News Media and the Law (Online)

Florida Forecast Cloudy, but Now with a Chance of Sunshine

Magazine article The News Media and the Law (Online)

Florida Forecast Cloudy, but Now with a Chance of Sunshine

Article excerpt

Until recently Florida's Public Records Law, widely regarded as one of the strongest in the nation, looked to be in danger of losing one of its most important enforcement mechanisms.

Two bills introduced in the legislature would have eliminated mandatory awards of costs and attorney's fees for successful public records litigants. Instead, courts would have discretion over whether a requester who wins the release of records can recover his expenditures.

But a new amendment, prompted by pushback from the press and the public, recently resulted in a narrower Senate bill that doesn't harm the vast majority of requesters. And as of late February the pospects for passage of House's version have diminished, if not disappeared.

The motivation for the original bills, according to state Sen. René García (R-38th), sponsor of SB 1220, was to curtail a "cottage industry" of persons and entities entities who make numerous public records requests, sue and then recover fees. "Right now, there are organizations that will make hundreds of public records requests, each potentially containing thousands of documents, all to order around a city or county so they can receive a settlement," he told a Senate committee.

State Rep. W. Gregory "Greg" Steube (R-73rd), sponsor of HB 1021, said in an interview with Florida radio station WTSP that "our tax dollars shouldn't be going to people setting up local governments, trying to sue them for things."

Press and transparency groups immediately rallied against the bills as originally introduced, arguing that a small group of individuals are the source of the problem, and that recovering attorney's fees is essential to ensuring the public's right to know is enforced.

Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, told the Reporters Committee that there are no more than a dozen individuals and organizations who are the source of these overreaching requests. In a letter from the First Amendment Foundation to Steube, Petersen said "[t]his is a small group of people, particularly when compared to the vast majority of citizens who simply want access to the public records they seek. In effect, your bill punishes them because of the misdeeds of a small minority."

Tampa Bay Times Columnist Daniel Ruth argued that the public's right to know would be unfairly restricted by the bills as they are currently worded. "So the Florida Legislature wants to disenfranchise nearly 20 million residents and the state's news media from accessing public records they have every right to see, merely because a minute fraction of legal gadflies might - might - have abused the process? …

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