Once again, Florida's Legislature is reviewing a slew of bills that intend to carve out exemptions to the state's enviable law allowing access to public records.
More than 50 proposals are on the table, potentially adding to the over 1,100 exemptions on open government meetings and public records currently in state law.
The state's premier watchdog of the Sunshine Law, the First Amendment Foundation, also notes that last year's legislative session saw a record number of measures to shield government agencies from public requests were passed and signed into law -- 22.
The Legislature is far less interested in serving the public interest. "We've seen ... no more than three bills passed that enhance public access in 24 years," according to Barbara Petersen, the executive director of the First Amendment Foundation.
To be fair, not all of the current bills are objectionable on public disclosure grounds, with many proposals "narrow and certainly justified," the foundation notes in its review of every measure. But these are:
Officer body cameras
We've advocated the deployment of body cameras on law enforcement officers as indisputable proof of the interactions between the public and police. Trust in law enforcement is vital, and those videos can debunk false accusations of official misconduct or confirm witness allegations of abuse of authority.
But CS/SB 248 aims to exempt almost all videos from public disclosure. Scenes shot at houses, hospitals and schools, or at medical emergencies and of anyone younger than age 14 would be off limits.
As the First Amendment Foundation points out, the youth recently shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer was 12. The public deserves the right to review such videos to decide whether the officer's conduct was warranted.
An amended version of the legislation filed Tuesday cites some legitimate concerns about a blanket public access to video and audio recordings. Witnesses and informants who know that they are being recorded by a body camera might be reticent about cooperating with officers if they know the video would be available to anyone.
While there are other reasonable exclusions of the public release of recordings involving the potential threats to the public, Floridians deserve transparency in other cases.
College leader searches
Florida's state universities and colleges spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and taxpayers have a right to vet applicants vying to become president, provost or dean.
Yet HB 223/SB 182 intend to shield information identifying those job-seekers and the meetings where discussions are held where applicant data would surface.
The public would know the names of the finalists 30 days before the official meeting on the selection is made. Candidate interviews and other meetings in advance of that time frame would be closed to the public, eliminating citizen scrutiny of the process and the information. And citizens would likely be left with one candidate to evaluate.
The justification -- that openness limits the pool of quality applicants -- is merely a supposition. The public pays for the right to evaluate candidates for such high office.
Other bad bills aim to hide the email addresses that residents send to county tax collectors (telephone numbers and street addresses are publicly available, and the rationale that email exposes people to fraud are exaggerated) and to exempt surveillance video shot by community development districts (on the vague notion that someone wants to monitor license plate numbers).
Government-in-the-Sunshine Law exemptions that hinder watchdog organizations, the media and other Floridians from shining a light on government operations do not serve the public interest.