Senate Judiciary Committee hears public records bill today

BARBARA PETERSEN

BARBARA PETERSEN

Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation of which Historic City News is an Internet publication member, says a proposed legislative change would weaken the only recourse afforded citizens whose constitutional right to access public documents is unlawfully denied.

Supporters of the bill, which includes the Florida League of Cities, say it would prevent so-called “economic terrorists” who extort money from governments through frivolous and misleading public-records requests; but, a coalition of groups including the Florida AFL-CIO, believes it would cloud the state’s Sunshine Laws.

“I can’t go to the Office of Open Government and ask them to take this on for me, because they don’t have the power,” Petersen says. “So, the only way for people to enforce the constitutional right of access is to go to court.”

The House Appropriations Committee passed the House Bill last week, and the Senate version of the Bill is on the agenda for the Judiciary Committee today.

No one disputes Floridians have a constitutional right to access public documents, the debate over how to crack down on a small number of abusers of that right is much more controversial.

State law currently dictates that if a person sues the government for violating public records access and wins, they’ll be awarded costs and attorney’s fees associated with the case. The proposed legislation would defer that decision to a judge on a case-by-case basis.

Petersen doesn’t dispute there have been abuses of the system, but she feels the proposed change would have a chilling effect on the public. “Because we have some bad actors, are we’re going to treat all of us with the same tainted brush, and make it much more difficult for average people to get public records?” Petersen asked.

The First Amendment Foundation wants the bill to require a two-day notice to the agency where records are being requested in order for any fees to be awarded. For years, the foundation also has pushed for more training on how to comply with the public-records law, and for an alternative dispute process short of going to court.

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