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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2002
People keep moving to Florida, and too many of the newcomers don't know -- or care -- about the state's "Government-in-the-Sunshine" laws. That may be one reason why Florida legislators year after year keep chipping away at these laws that require, with carefully drawn exceptions, open meetings and open records. This issue doesn't seem to have the kind of organized constituency that lawmakers pay attention to. Editorial writers can scream their heads off, but until there is a public outcry that can be heard from Key West to Tallahassee, the forces of darkness will keep drawing the shades on open government in Florida.
Last week, the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications released the results of a statewide poll that makes an important contribution to the "Sunshine Sunday" project uniting Florida newspapers in opposition to the repeated assaults on open government in Tallahassee.
The poll found that 98 percent of the respondents agreed that before admitting a loved one to a nursing home they should be able to "view the state inspection records, violations and long-term care reports of the facilities." Yet, the Legislature last year put those records off limits to the public with hardly a peep of protest. Would it have made a difference if lawmakers had been hit with a wave of public opinion opposing the law? Maybe yes, maybe no. This is not the only issue where the Legislature has ignored public opinion.
Dr. Linda Perry, one of the professors who directed the telephone poll of 446 Floridians 18 years or older, said: "The findings are significant, because they reveal that Florida legislators were out of synch with public opinion when they closed nursing home records last year. The Legislature cut off the people's access to these records at a time when more than 90 percent of the nation's nursing homes have too few health care workers, a strong indicator of substandard care."
While Floridians care about open records in certain situations -- nursing home records, for example -- many don't seem to understand that open government must be supported in principle as well, even when the public is uncomfortable with some of the ways public information is used.
One of the poll's most striking findings was how little Floridians know about public-records law. For example, the survey found that almost 37 percent of the respondents did not know that access to public records extends to "any record of local and state officials and offices, unless that record is specifically exempted by law." More than 72 percent didn't know that nonresidents have the same access to public records as Florida residents; 81 percent didn't know the requests for records do not have to be made in writing; 58 percent didn't know that you are not required to explain why you want the information; and nearly 70 percent didn't realize that you don't have to show identification to gain access to public records.
The threat of terrorism has given lawmakers political cover for their latest efforts to close off whole categories of public records. Some of the proposed exemptions, of course, are legitimate, but others are not.
I also found it interesting that Floridians appear to value access to public meetings more than they do access to public records. Asked whether they agreed that "it is necessary to curtail your right of access to some of Florida's public meetings to curb terrorism," 40.4 percent disagreed, 38.2 percent agreed, and 21.4 percent were not sure.
When the same question was asked, substituting "public records" for "public meetings," 55.8 percent of the respondents agreed that it might be necessary to limit access to public records because of the threat of terrorism, 22.8 percent disagreed, and 21.4 percent were not sure.
According to the poll, Republicans (76 percent) were more likely than Democrats (59 percent), whites (72 percent) more likely than blacks (41 percent), to support restricting civil liberties in time of a national crisis. About a third of the respondents expressed concern that the Legislature would not enact effective antiterrorism laws because of First Amendment and open-records concerns. About the same percentage expressed the opposite view -- that the state will pass new antiterrorism laws that diminish the freedoms that are essential to a vigorous democracy.
The debate over open records is being complicated not only by the threat of terrorism but also by a growing concern about personal privacy. The UF survey did not explore the privacy issue, but last year a nationwide poll conducted for the First Amendment Center and the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that while Americans strongly support the concepts of open government and freedom of information, they are conflicted on how to balance openess against privacy concerns. More than half (54 percent) of the respondents supported strengthening privacy laws even at the expense of closing some public records, and 56 percent said they would support stronger privacy laws even if it limits the ability of journalists to play their watchdog role.
There is a message here for news organizations: In asking the public to stand with us in the sunshine, journalists have an obligation to use public information responsibly and to be sensitive to the privacy concerns of citizens. We must never appear to be putting our own interests ahead of the public interest.