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"Democracies die behind closed doors. The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people's right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately."
- Judge Damon Keith, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

Florida Freedom 0f Information

History
Open Meetings
Public Records
Federal FOI Law

History:

While all state’s FOI laws vary, Florida has been long known to have among the strongest open meetings and open records laws in the country. It began in 1909 when the Florida legislature passed the first Public Records Law under Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes. This law made it possible to access records either made or received by any public agency, with the exception of a few specific exemptions.

In 1975, Florida also enacted the Sunshine Law under Chapter 286 of the Florida Statutes. This law provides access to most meetings of governing bodies of state and local governments within the state. In 1990, voters passed a constitutional amendment also allowing access to meetings of the state Legislative Branch as well. Florida voters again overwhelmingly agreed to add the Public Records and Public Meetings law to the state constitution. Because of this, citizens have a constitutional right under Article 1, Section 24, to access government information of the state executive, legislative and judicial branches.

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Open Meetings:

Under the Sunshine Law, governmental bodies and agencies are required to open their meetings to the public so that citizens may observe the decision-making process of the body. Florida courts have ruled that the bodies covered under the Sunshine Law include any public board, commission or regional agency under the control of the state Legislature. Members of these bodies can either be elected or appointed officials.

If governmental decision-making power is delegated to some authority other than a body that is covered by the Sunshine Law, than that private body is subject to the Open Meetings Law as well. Staff members may also be subject to the Open Meetings Law if they take part in the decision-making process. Members of government bodies and agencies are not ordinarily required to hold open meetings if administrative matters are to be addressed or if meeting with attorneys over pending litigation.

Bodies are also required to make public notice of when and where meetings will take place, allowing citizens proper information to attend the event. If a meeting is not properly noticed to the public, an agency could possibly be in violation of the Sunshine Law. Meeting minutes are also required by law to be taken at each meeting and are also considered public record.

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Public Records:

Florida also enjoys access to public records. Public records, as defined by Chapter 119, Florida Statues, are “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software or other material, regardless of the physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission,” created or received in connection with government business. All such records are available for inspection unless specifically exempt by the Legislature.

With technological development, the Florida Legislature in 1995 was forced to amend its definition of public records to include computer records and data processing software. For example, e-mail messages made or received in connection to official government business are concerned public records and must be made available for inspection by the public.

Government records that are exempt from public disclosure are specifically mentioned by the Legislature. An agency wishing to exempt a record must prove why the record should be exempt under the law, and a public records custodian must specifically state to a requesting why a specific document is exempt. There are a list of over 550 records that are exempt under the Public Records Law, and each legislative session, more and more records are at risk. A few of the many records excluded from disclosure include medical records, autopsy photographs, police records of an open investigation, student educational records, and security system plans.

Curently, a two-thirds vote is required by the legislature to pass any new public record exemptions or to renew previous exemptions. This law was established for the benefit of the public, to make it more difficult for law-makers to exempt information without having a legitimate reason to do so.

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Federal Freedom of Information Act

The Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed and signed into legislation in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson. Under this act, people are granted access to information and records within the Executive Branch of the federal government. It does not pertain to information held by Congress, the federal judiciary or the President’s office.

In 1976, the federal government passed the Government in the Sunshine Act, also know as the Sunshine Act. This law provides for the public to attend meetings of any federal Executive Branch commission. Meetings must be publicized and open to anyone wanting to attending. Federal commissions subject to this law, just to name a few, include the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In 1996, the FOIA was amended to include electronic records generated by computers. In the age of the Internet, e-mails are considered just as much of a record as any piece of paper. Some government agencies only have electronic copies of certain records. The amendment also required government agencies to create Web sites for the public to use to facilitate access to records.

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© 2004 Courtney A. Rick

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