Don’t close the blinds on Florida’s Sunshine Law — we have a right to know

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Pulse nightclub murders last year are cited as a reason for legislation to bar the release of video of the killing of any person in Florida.
Pulse nightclub murders last year are cited as a reason for legislation to bar the release of video of the killing of any person in Florida. pportal@elnuevoherald.com

Slowly, but surely, through exemptions and rule changes, the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature has chipped away at critical touchstones of Florida’s Sunshine Law. This must stop.

Blocking the relentless effort to repeal Floridians’ right to know should take center stage when the legislative session begins next month and lawmakers continue their efforts to close the door on open government.

During the upcoming session, the Miami Herald Editorial Board will focus on the most onerous legislative bills and inform the public of how their passage will impact Florida. We laud the efforts of the First Amendment Foundation and its president Barbara Petersen, who has sounded the alarm.

Among the eyebrow-raising bills targeting transparency this year is Senate Bill 968 filed by state Sen. Randolph Bracy III, D-Orlando. It would block the release of a photograph, video or audio recording of the “killing of a person” in Florida. A similar bill in the House introduced by State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, has been withdrawn, for now.

The focus of the bill is this: If an exemption passed last year is amended, as this bill seeks, public access to any type of recordings of anyone’s death would be banned from being released to the media and, therefore, the public.

The law already prohibits the dissemination of such recordings by an agency of the “killing of a law enforcement officer who was acting in accordance with his or her official duties.” The current effort expands the wording to include the “killing of a person.” The measure is retroactive and would apply to recordings that already exist.

The measure, rightly, has attracted concerns from open-government and transparency advocates who fear it would squelch oversight of law-enforcement officers across the state. We agree.

We understand that at first glance, some will say: “Oh, that’s good. People deserve privacy in death. That’s just the nosy media wanting to broadcast the death of a person to exploit it for ratings and clicks.” But that’s a misguided interpretation.

The bill would do an end run around the demand to see the images captured on a law-enforcement officer’s body cam, negating the very reason many officers’ gear now includes cameras.

Petersen said the proposal would “block the public’s ability to see controversial actions by law enforcement officials.” How can that be good when a fatal police shooting is under scrutiny?

What if your loved one, friend or neighbor is killed by a police officer and there are questions about what led to the use of deadly force? If this passes, the police department in question would not be required, under Florida law, to release the video.

The bill is said to be in response to the mass shootings at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport, which left five dead, and at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where 49 died.

Several media outlets sued the city of Orlando for hundreds of 911 calls nightclub patrons made during the tragedy. A judge sided with the media, releasing almost all of the recordings. Some of the victims’ family members were upset by that action.

But the calls gave the public a glimpse of how law enforcement responded to the tragedy and how, sadly, some of the wounded waited hours for help.

As painful as those 911 calls were, the details about how public servants act on the public’s behalf should not be kept from the residents of this state.