When Florida media groups are concerned about freedom of the press and open government, they turn to the First Amendment Foundation for help.
Pete Weitzel, former senior editor of the Miami Herald, founded the non-profit 30 years ago.
The foundation is funded through contributions. It provides training, legal aid, and the annual Government in the Sunshine Manual as a guide to Florida’s open meetings and public-records laws.
This is a busy time of year for foundation president Barbara Petersen. With the legislative session underway in Tallahassee, she’s lobbying lawmakers for more government transparency and fewer public records exemptions.
We spoke with Petersen about the foundation's priorities for the session.
Q: Why should the average Floridian care whether we have freedom of the press?
A: Freedom of the press is important. In fact, it’s interesting because the press is the only profession actually named in the Constitution, and it’s included in the First Amendment. I think that our founding fathers realized that the press, as an independent entity, is really the public’s eyes and ears.
But the right of access is really the public’s right of access, and the purpose of open government laws is to allow oversight. Government employees actually work for us. We, the public, pay their salaries with our tax dollars and we have a right to oversee what they’re doing and how they’re spending our money.
Q: The foundation supports bills that would require elected city officials to be trained every year in ethics and make sure public meeting notices include a description of everything up for consideration. Those seem like they would be obvious – but apparently they're not. Why is this a concern?
A: The biggest problem we have is a lack of training and education when it comes to the public’s constitutional right of access. So more training in that area and more ethics training is always a good thing.
The public notice bill simply says if you’re going to take action on it, you need to let the public know in advance.
Q: The foundation is promoting a bill that would provide more transparency in organizations that have government contracts. Tell us more about that.
A: This bill, if it passes, will probably be the most significant improvements to Florida’s public-records laws since the mid-'90s. There are a number of requirements in the bill:
- Training of all appropriate government agency employees
- Caps fees that agencies can charge for public records -- this has been a big problem in the state
- Clarifies a provision making private contractors who act on behalf of government comply with the public-records law.
Q: One of the bills opposed by the foundation would keep private the email addresses used by tax collectors to send homeowners their tax notices. Why are you against that?
A: This bill exempts email addresses for certain purposes but not all purposes.
Every time the Legislature creates an exemption to the public-records law or the open-meetings law, it is creating an exception to our constitutional right of access. We now have over 1,000 exemptions to the public-records law and the open-meetings law combined.
Q: Senate President Don Gaetz says Florida leads the nation in open records and open government. Is that accurate?
A: I think it is. I think if you look at our law and particularly at our constitutional right of access, I think we have some of the strongest laws in the nation.
I think the biggest weakness in our law is a lack of enforcement. So it’s up to the citizens of this state to enforce their right, and frequently it forces them into a courtroom. And that’s a very expensive proposition.
When a government agency loses a lawsuit for access to public records or open meetings, that agency is required to reimburse the plaintiffs for all attorneys’ fees and court costs. That’s taxpayer dollars. So, we’re paying when our government violates our rights.
I don’t think that’s a very strong or very appropriate response. I really wish we had stronger enforcement mechanisms.