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Seeking answers to a public records crisis in Florida

There is a very serious public records problem in Florida and some very dedicated people want to solve this problem.

This will not be easy, because the people responsible for this crisis – Governor Ron DeSantis and the Legislature – are the same people they will have to rely on to fix the system.

For decades, Florida had one of the strictest public records protection laws in the country.

Both the Constitution and Florida state law guarantee a right of access to state and local government records, although lawmakers add new exceptions each year.

The underlying law is clear. “Any person who holds a public document shall permit any person requesting it to inspect and copy that document at any reasonable time, under reasonable conditions and under the supervision of the custodian of the public document,” it states.

A farce of public records

But this right to information is regularly violated because too many people in state government do not take the law seriously. It starts at the top – in the governor's office.

The government routinely delays public records requests for months, even years, and avoids fulfilling those requests until the request is no longer timely or the requester moves on or retires.

It took the state nearly two years to deny the Orlando Sentinel's request for DeSantis' travel records, citing an exemption passed by the legislature long after the original request.

Two former Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials said DeSantis staff blocked the release of additional travel documents and retaliated against them for questioning the decision.

The Washington Post has sued the state to obtain travel records and emails that are public records under the law. The ACLU sued the state nearly a year ago for refusing to promptly release public records about immigration activities.

Want records? Sue us

Under DeSantis, public records requests often require legal recourse, which is costly at a time when many news organizations are struggling to survive.

It should not take a lawsuit, or the threat of one, to persuade a bureaucrat to enforce a right of access guaranteed by the Florida Constitution.

The First Amendment Foundation will work with the University of Florida's B. Rechner Center for the Advancement of the First Amendment and the Florida Center for Government Accountability to push for legislation that would enforce compliance with public records requests.

They will propose the creation of a high-level independent ombudsman in state government with the power to impose fines for non-compliance with public records requests. This legal and financial duo is desperately needed in Florida.

Various ombudsman models exist in Connecticut, Washington, and Pennsylvania, where a statewide Office of Open Records (OOR) enforces each state's Right-to-Know law.

The law provides for a fine of up to $1,500 if an agency in bad faith refuses to produce public records and up to $500 per day if an agency fails to promptly comply with a court order to produce records.

Bobby Block, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, announced the strategy at the foundation's annual awards ceremony held last weekend in Tallahassee.

The awards ceremony was held in the rotunda of the Florida State University law school, which is named for the late Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte, a former FSU president, dean of the law school and First Amendment advocate.

The routine lack of respect for public records law has become a “farce” in Florida, Block said.

“Our freedoms only exist because of the actions of people who believe in them, and that's why we're here today,” Block said. “They understand that free speech only works when it works for everyone.”

In that spirit, the foundation has given two annual Friend of the First Amendment awards, one of which went to conservative Christian radio host Bill Bunkley, who is working to block proposed legislation to weaken Florida's defamation laws.

Another award went to Stephana Ferrell of Orlando, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, a nonprofit that promotes student access to books. Ferrell said she has filed more than 1,000 public records requests.

“There is a reason why the First Amendment,” Ferrell said. “It's the most important right.”

The Sun Sentinel's editorial board consists of Opinion Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Opinion Editor Dan Sweeney, Editorial Writer Martin Dyckman and Managing Editor Julie Anderson. Editorials reflect the opinion of the editorial board and are written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email letters@sun-sentinel.com.

Anna Harden

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