For years, Florida’s open records laws have been touted as among the strongest in the country.
Yet those laws, which guarantee transparency in government for citizens and journalists alike, are under assault.
Just 30 years ago, there were 250 exemptions to the state Sunshine laws. Fast forward, and there are now more than 1,100 exemptions to Florida’s public records laws, everything from the sealing of autopsy photos to the identity of pet owners on rabies vaccination certificates.
Sunday marks the start of Sunshine Week, calling attention to the importance of open government. It began in 2002 in Florida as a response by the Florida Society of News Editors to legislative efforts to create dozens of exemptions.
Just last year, the legislature approved 22 new exemptions. And this year, there are almost 50 in consideration, including a bill that would seal the “former places of employment” of police officers. The results of these growing exemptions are protracted and costly battles to get information from every level of government, from the smallest town to the largest state agency.
Every day, Miami Herald journalists use these laws to bring our readers the news — often the very stories some would rather go unreported. We spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars a month in fees for public records.
In Innocents Lost, our series on children who died while on the radar of the Department of Children & Families, the reporting by Audra D. S. Burch and Carol Marbin Miller involved scores of interviews, dozens of public records requests and three lawsuits to obtain the tens of thousands of documents that were the basis of the project.
In one instance, even though the head of DCF did not oppose our request for detailed information on several deaths, it still took months of court wrangling to get the information. And the cost in legal fees was in the thousands of dollars.
For nearly a year, Julie K. Brown has been investigating suspicious deaths in Florida’s prisons. We sued over the records of Darren Rainey, a prisoner who died in a scalding shower, after virtually every document we paid for came back riddled with redactions. The Department of Corrections also refused to provide video surveillance footage from the hours before Rainey’s death. We did not prevail in that suit, as is sometimes the case.
Overall, we have spent thousands of dollars on prison records and, almost without exception, have received heavily redacted documentation. Broad exemptions allow the DOC to redact, among other things, any medical or security information. The department says these redactions are a safeguard against security and privacy breaches, but they also shield the department from having to answer to the public.
During staff writer Michael Vasquez’s reporting on for-profit colleges in Florida, we paid the state hundreds of dollars for copies of student complaints that were submitted to the state. We received the complaints, but with the names of the students blacked out, making it impossible to ask the students about their experiences. The state says this protects student privacy, but it also protects for-profit schools and the Department of Education from meaningful accountability.
Often, politicians talk about how they want more transparency in government. But the true test of that — and the best way to measure their commitment — is their willingness to be open with how they do business, and their willingness to enable the public to provide oversight of government. This legislative session will be the next test.
Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, executive editor, can be reached at 305-376-3429 or amarques@MiamiHerald.com. The mailing address is 3511 NW 91st Avenue, Miami, FL 33172. Follow on Twitter @MindyMarques.