Florida's century-old Sunshine Laws under duress as DeSantis tries to redefine them
Published in News & Features
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Two years ago, Orlando television reporter Mike DeForest requested some routine travel and budget expenses from a state agency that had given him contractor license records within days, but this request took more than three months. He decided to ask why, so he asked for more records.
After months of delays, the WKMG-TV investigative reporter got lawyers involved and only then did the governor’s office turn over records — a 10-page handwritten log of public records requested by the public that were under review by the governor’s office.
The log recorded the date the request was received and the date the documents were returned. It was titled “Papers Routed Through EOG Legal,” and it revealed that while state agencies often assembled documents within days of receiving a public records request, if the request was made by reporters or involved information of high value to the governor, the Executive Office of the Governor (EOG) kept them for review, where they sat for as long as nine months.
“It was the first time I was able to see that these are mostly being prejudiced [against] news organizations,’’ DeForest said in an interview. “It’s an extra hurdle that the Constitution doesn’t call for.”
More than a century of open access to records
Florida has earned a reputation for some of the broadest open records and public meeting laws in the nation. Known as Sunshine Laws, they were first approved by lawmakers in 1909, expanded in 1967 and added to the Florida Constitution by voters in 1992.
Most governors bristle at having to turn over internal musings, emails and transactions to the public, but Gov. Ron DeSantis, who came to office with an aggressive approach to exercising executive authority, has been more combative than most of his predecessors.
“We’re heading into dark times, and this is Sunshine Week,’’ said Michael Barfield, director of public access at the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a public records watchdog. Sunshine Week is recognized by First Amendment advocates across the nation to call attention to the importance of public access to government information. Sunshine Week this year was the week of March 13.
Since DeSantis took office, the number of exemptions to the state’s public records law has expanded, and the interpretation of what is a public record has shifted.
In his first year, for example, lawmakers expanded the list of personal details exempt from public records on public officials. Last year, DeSantis signed a law shielding information about candidates for state college and university presidencies.
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