Foundation battles ‘bad bills’ that threaten access to public records, meetings

Monday, April 6, 1998

This is the third year that Florida veterinarians have asked lawmakers to enact legislation barring public access to rabies vaccination lists. Citing vet-pet confidentiality, they say they worry that direct marketers can get a list of all pet owners.

And this is only one of 89 bills in the Florida Legislature this session, a record high, that would in some way affect public access to records and meetings. According to Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, 10 such bills were passed last year.

In recognizing what she characterizes as a full assault on the state's public records and open-meetings laws, Petersen admits that open-government advocates have their hands full.

“What concerns me is when we see these bills in committee there is rarely any discussion or debate about what the legislation would do and no recognition that we would create another exemption to a constitutional right of access,” said Petersen, adding that there are 715 exemptions currently on the books.

“In fact the sky is falling,” Petersen said during an interview. Petersen, a former staff attorney for the Legislature's Joint Committee on Information Technology Resources, has been a part of the First Amendment Foundation since 1995. Funded by news media and concerned individuals and organizations, the nonprofit group's mission is to protect and advance the First Amendment, public records and open-meeting rights of Floridians.

While fighting what Petersen calls “bad bills”–such as those that would make public hospitals virtually inaccessible in terms of meetings and public records–the Foundation's two-person staff still finds time to provide education and training, legal aid and information services to the public.

The organization maintains a First Amendment hot line—800/337-3518 or 850/222-3518—that provides information and advice on free speech, free press and open government issues.

Three years ago when the hot line began, it received 200 calls. That number grew to 700 by 1997. Petersen said that 45 percent of last year's calls were from the public seeking information about rights and information on public-records and sunshine laws. She also reports that the hot line has already received 200 inquiries this year, which puts it on pace to receive more calls than during any previous year.

“I'm annoyed by legislators who tell me the public doesn't care about an open government,” Petersen said. “That's not true. They prove it everyday.”

The Foundation also conducts seminars and conferences, publishes a Government-in-the-Sunshine manual, and will offer in-depth First Amendment-related videos.

There is no real way to determine if lawmakers who are proposing to curb access will find success this year, Petersen says. “We never predict anything, but Florida is a state known for its strong constitutional guarantee of public access.”

In 1992, Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing open government. According to Petersen, that law received higher voter approval than any other constitutional amendment on a Florida ballot.

“A very active press,” is another factor which “sets Florida apart” from other states, Petersen said. “Newspapers file lawsuits everyday when denied access to public records; the press is very involved in these issues as well as the public.”

In 1997, the Foundation joined the Daytona Beach News Journal's case against a public hospital challenging the constitutionality of an exemption for certain meetings of the hospital board. That litigation is now before the Florida Supreme Court.

The group also joined the paper's suit against a private nonprofit hospital. The newspaper asserts that the hospital is subject to the state's Sunshine Law and Public Records Law.

Freedom-of-Information “fights haven't changed much over the last ten years,” Petersen said. “The biggest issue is the perceived threat of privacy and the attempt by legislators to close access to records in the name of privacy.”

Despite the many proposed access-restricting measures, Petersen has found two bills to support this session. Both the Senate and the House are currently considering legislation that would make it more difficult to force a reporter to disclose confidential sources or testify in court. Petersen predicts that the measures—which she calls a plus for reporters' privilege, will pass.