Florida lawmakers keep putting limits on public access to public information. Ask them: Why?

Attempts to eliminate government public notices from newspapers failed, again, in the 2019 Florida legislative session.
Attempts to eliminate government public notices from newspapers failed, again, in the 2019 Florida legislative session. Miami Herald

Florida lawmakers made a lot of bad calls in the 2019 session: They erected hurdles to ex-felons voting; by arming teachers they made schools more dangerous, not less; and they staged their annual irresponsible raid on affordable-housing funds.

They didn’t stop there. State legislators, in another unfortunate annual tradition, further reduced the government information that is available to the public.

Too often, lawmakers’ efforts to block public access to public information were driven by political wiliness, the push for bureaucratic secrecy or flat-out animus toward the media. None of these reasons is in Floridians’ best interests.

Open-government advocates scored a few hard-won victories, defeating some bad proposals, or at least making them less bad. However the bulk of what passed shuts out the public. In addition, bills that would have enhanced public access went down in flames.

For instance, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, filed legislation that prohibits a government agency from suing individuals simply because they made a public-records request. And, yes, such abominable lawsuits already have been filed, which is why Rodrigues rightly sought to quash the practice. Though this worthy bill passed in the House, it went nowhere in the Senate. Floridians should be rankled and ask: Why should the government be allowed to sue citizens for exercising their constitutional right? It is outright thuggish government intimidation that lawmakers would decry if it were happening in, say, Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.

According to Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, her organization played a huge role in beating back a bill that would have exempted the names of foster parents from public access, including the media.

Why is access to this information so important? It lets Floridians see, for instance, the degree to which the state fails to protect children who are abused or dying while in its care. The Miami Herald’s 2014 series “Innocents Lost” was able to outline in painful detail just how poorly the state looked out for kids in troubled homes, including those in foster homes. We need to know when government is acting on our behalf, and failing miserably.

Lawmakers also wanted to deny media and nonpartisan organizations such as the League of Woman Voters access to registered voters’ telephone numbers and email addresses. “Protecting voters from robocalls,” Republicans claimed. Funny thing though, candidates, political parties, PACS and elected officials the callers many of us would like to shun — would still have access to the information. Fortunately, this did not stand. In its final form, the bill exempts the contact information only of 16 and 17 year olds who have registered, but who are not old enough, to vote.

There was one real win in the name of open government: Misguided bills to eliminate “legal notices” in Florida newspapers failed, again. That means that local and county governments still will be required to place ads alerting residents to upcoming government meetings, public hearings, zoning hearings, special elections, etc. so that they can exercise their constitutional right to address the issue.

Overall, however, the Legislature continued to stealthily close the door on what have been Florida’s progressive open-government laws. Floridians should push back against lawmakers’ disdain for them and their right to know.