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Forgotten tape law comes back to haunt us

By LUCY MORGAN
Published August 6, 2005


Once upon a time it was legal to tape record your telephone conversations in Florida.

Before Oct. 1, 1974, that is.

During the legislative session that year lawmakers changed the law, requiring the consent of all parties to a conversation before someone could push the record button.

The change in the law came in a bill sponsored by Sen. W.D. Childers, then a wily Democrat from Pensacola. He later switched parties and remained in the Legislature until term limits chased him out in 2000.

There were eight other sponsors of the bill which won almost unanimous passage in the House and Senate. One House member voted against the bill, and he no longer remembers why.

The other players on that stage - the ones who have memories left and are still alive - have differing recollections of why it passed if they remember anything at all.

Some think it involved Senate President Dempsey Barron and a tape recording made of him by a Miami Herald reporter. But Terri Jo Barron, the late senator's widow, says "that didn't happen."

Others believe it arose out of a Miami scandal involving a circuit judge and other officials who were indicted on bribery charges in 1973 after a series of tape recordings were made involving bags of money produced at a farmers market.

Mark Herron, a lawyer and lobbyist in Tallahassee who was the attorney for the House Criminal Justice Committee, recalls hearing Childers talk about a particularly nasty divorce in West Florida that involved one spouse tape recording another.

Some recall a House member who got into trouble after a reporter tape recorded a conversation with him and some speculate that it was a product of Watergate and all the tape recordings that surrounded the downfall of President Richard Nixon.

The tape recording of the House committee meeting does not reveal the reason for the bill.

A Senate staff analysis says the bill aimed to give greater protection to the privacy of Floridians, a description that could easily cloak a host of sins.

Whatever the reasons, the law is taking its toll on the Miami Herald and columnist Jim DeFede, who was fired for tape recording a conversation with Arthur Teele, a former Miami-Dade commissioner who shot and killed himself in the Herald's lobby a short time later.

DeFede had been sympathetic to Teele and started his tape recorder running when he realized how distraught Teele was. Teele never knew the tape was made. The rest of us wouldn't know it either, but DeFede told Herald lawyers and editors.

Three hours later DeFede was out the door, and many believe his dismissal had a lot more to do with the columns he wrote denouncing Knight Ridder, the Miami Herald's parent company.

I should disclose something here. I am one of 528 journalists who have signed a petition urging the Herald to reinstate DeFede. He does not deserve the death penalty for lending a sympathetic ear to a troubled man.

A lot of lawyers are likely to grow rich on this case in the months and years to come, but DeFede's lawyer questions what expectation of privacy a public official has when he calls a reporter.

This issue has been well-litigated. In 1976 a Miami television station and the Herald went to court in an attempt to have the law declared invalid so reporters doing investigations might include surreptitious recordings.

The Florida Supreme Court refused to make an exception for reporters, ruling that all parties must consent to a tape recording.

Five years ago the U.S. Supreme Court refused to allow some union officials to collect damages when a radio station in Pennsylvania broadcast an illicit tape recording of union officials in the heat of a collective bargaining battle. The radio station didn't make the recording, merely broadcast it, so the court ruled it was protected by the First Amendment.

Researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 6, 2005, 01:35:13]


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