Lawmakers grapple with the cost of our obsession with privacy

The annual assault on Florida’s popular open government laws continues this legislative session. Even as the public clamors for greater transparency and access to their elected officials and government, our own Representative, Cyndi Stevenson, has added to the problem by introducing a bill that would hide voter registration records from media and members of the public.

During the first week of the session that began January 11th, more than 50 bills were filed adding new exemptions to the state’s public records law. No less than 20 of those bills cleared their first review committees, including a highly contentious proposal to shield the names of people applying to be State university presidents, until finalists are selected.

“There are some really bad exemption bills this year,” said Pamela Marsh, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonpartisan open-government watchdog of which Historic City News is a member. “Seems to me the focus should be on redistricting and other timely topics, rather than hiding more information from the public.”

In 1992, 83% of Florida voters incorporated the Government in the Sunshine Act into the state constitution, but Florida has a long history of public records accessibility going back to the first public records law passed in 1909. Meanwhile, lawmakers have carved out more than 1,100 exemptions to its public records law.

  • There is a higher bar on approving public records exemptions than most other bills. All public records exemptions require a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate. Of last year’s 120 bills, only 23 cleared that hurdle.
  • Lawmakers proposing public records exemptions must clearly state the reason that privacy interests outweigh the public’s right to know and make their exemption narrowly tailored. Sometimes, as is the case of Stevenson’s bill, they offer broad exemptions and vague reasons for the need.

There’s a general presumption in Florida that those public records should be open to view.

“Any exemption adds to the amount of information that must be redacted from a public record, increasing the amount of time it takes to access the record, and increasing the costs,” Virginia Hamrick, staff attorney for the First Amendment Foundation said. “Lawmakers from both parties supported the resolution placing the constitutional amendment on the ballot, so, I don’t know why lawmakers from both parties are now chipping away at the constitutional right of access.”

Frank LoMonte, director of The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, was quoted in a recent interview with Jeffrey Schweers, Florida Capital Bureau reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK.

LoMonte believes the law needs to be streamlined and brought back to the day when only a few dozen categories of records were “nobody’s business”. LoMonte suggests bank account numbers, social security numbers, and medical records are examples of legitimate exemptions.

“We need to have a serious, grown-up discussion about our obsession with privacy and what it’s costing us as a society,” LoMonte said.