Florida Politics

Bill that would block recordings of mass violence heads to House and Senate

Watch surveillance video outside Douglas during school shooting

The Broward Sheriff's Office released surveillance video from outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during and after the shooting by Nikolas Cruz that killed 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018.
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The Broward Sheriff's Office released surveillance video from outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during and after the shooting by Nikolas Cruz that killed 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018.

A year after the Parkland mass shooting that claimed 17 lives and spurred change in Tallahassee, a proposal that would block recordings of similar mass killings from the public eye could be one of the first bills heard by the full House and Senate in this year’s legislative session.

HB 7017, which passed its final committee stop Tuesday, would exempt from public record requests any photos, audio or video recordings of events that cause or relate to the deaths of three or more people, not including the perpetrator, in an incident of mass violence. The Senate’s companion bill, SB 186, also cleared its final committee hearing Wednesday morning.

The proposal is one of several dozen public records exemptions being proposed this session, prompting open government advocates to sound the alarm that this year may be one of the most restrictive in shielding information under the state’s Sunshine Law.

But Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, who chairs the committee sponsoring the House bill, told lawmakers in the House State Affairs committee Tuesday that the bill was an attempt to “strike a balance” between protecting families of victims and allowing for an open press.

He and other supporters say the bill is needed to prevent images of violence from encouraging similar crimes and that shielding those records will protect families of victims from seeing their loved ones’ deaths play out repeatedly on social media and other platforms.

“We don’t want family members to see the killing of their kid on Twitter or on Facebook,” he said after the bill passed unanimously. “[We] simultaneously make sure we’re not going too far to make it difficult for accountability to happen and for a free and open press to do the job it should be doing.”

Opponents pointed to the fact that the bill would almost certainly have blocked some of the records of the Parkland shooting from the public eye, and said that those records are important for transparency and holding government officials accountable.

It was videos of events surrounding the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that revealed Broward sheriff’s deputies did not enter the freshman building to confront the shooter as it was taking place. Several media outlets had to sue to obtain those records under a court order.

Those disclosures were also among those that prompted multiple sheriff’s deputies to leave the department and were cited by Gov. Ron DeSantis when he suspended then-Broward sheriff Scott Israel from his position.

Outlets can still petition to have recordings released under the House and Senate bills proposed, but Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said the cost of doing so is often prohibitive.

The Parkland videos, which showed events outside the school building where the shooting took place, cost media organizations about $100,000 to obtain, she said.

Grant and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who is sponsoring the companion Senate bill, both said they are discussing a possible floor amendment to tailor the language more narrowly.

Once the bills reach chamber floors, they require a two-thirds vote by each body to pass.

Petersen said she had asked Lee to consider restricting the language to recordings of events directly causing the death of victims of mass violence and to increase the count to four victims, not including the perpetrator. She said he had not yet responded to her request.

But she acknowledged that bills like HB 7017 “are very hard to combat. ... People don’t want to be seen as anti-victim,” she said.

The mass violence exemption bill is just one of dozens of public records exemptions that are being proposed this year. Some, like HB 1201, which would exempt autopsy records that personally identify the deceased, and SB 1146, which would bar any photo, video or audio of any shooting from being released, have no corresponding companion bills and have yet to be assigned to committees.

But others — including HB 203/SB 248, which would expand home address exemptions to include parcel or plot identification numbers, property descriptions, or GPS coordinates — are already scheduled for committee hearings.

Petersen said the foundation is waiting to take a position on several bills that are causing concern until lawmakers tell her whether they will reconsider the language in their legislation. But the early spate of exemptions is worrying: ”This is one of the worst years I’ve seen in a very long time,” she said. “I’ve written about two dozen letters [to lawmakers] already.”

Herald/Times reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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Elizabeth Koh is a state government reporter in the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times’ Tallahassee bureau, where she covers the Florida Legislature with a focus on health care politics and policy. A Brown University graduate, she covered local politics for the Washington Post and national politics for the Dallas Morning News’ D.C. bureau before joining the Herald in 2017.
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