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Government in secret needs a swift kick


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001

In which the narrator offers to let himself be kicked in the seat of the pants by the presiding officers of the state Legislature.

In which the narrator offers to let himself be kicked in the seat of the pants by the presiding officers of the state Legislature.

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The law and the Constitution of our state say that our government has to operate in public. Its meetings are public. Its documents are public. Its decisions are public.

The government hates this. You and I would hate it too, if we had to live that way. That's human nature. How much easier it would be if the government could do more things in secret!

And so every year, when our state Legislature meets, its members cook up more and more things to keep secret.

This year there are at least 126 proposals in the Legislature that affect open government, according to Barbara Petersen, who is executive director of a group called the First Amendment Foundation.

"My head might explode," Petersen complained Tuesday. Last year at about this time, there were only 75 such proposals, which still was about 74 too many.

I am a conservative on this point. I want to limit the power of the government, and protect the rights of the people.

Unfortunately, the Republicans who are in charge of the Legislature are acting like big-government liberals. They want to expand the power of the government to keep secrets -- sometimes even to make it a crime for a citizen to ask about them.

To pick one example out of the mix, there's House Bill 1535, sponsored by state Rep. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. The main purpose of the bill is to cast secrecy over job hunts for university and community college presidents and state education commissioner. That's a debatable idea by itself.

Here's the kicker: The bill would make it a crime, punishable by up to a year behind bars, and with a fine of up to $1,000, for anyone who "knowingly and willfully makes public . . . any information made confidential" by the law.

Stop and think about that. Making it a crime for a citizen to speak of who the government might put in a position of power? It feels like North Korea, or China.

Lynn courteously took the time to talk with me Tuesday. She explained there was nothing unusual about adding a criminal penalty; the Legislature has been doing that on several public-records exemptions. What good is a public-records exemption if there is no punishment for violating it? Besides, Lynn cautioned me, the bill might not pass this year; no sense in attacking thin air.

Even so, there are plenty of other secrecy measures pending. Some are well-intentioned but too broad. Are there scam artists exploiting auto-accident reports? Then crack down on them, instead of cutting off the public's ability to see the reports. Are crooks using public records to steal identities, or to stalk? Then punish them with brutal force, instead of taking away the rights of the entire public.

Some pending bills even would make it a crime to "attempt to obtain" such newly designated secret information. The way those bills are written right now, they would make it a crime even to make an innocent public records request!

Few lawmakers will say so, but they always get an extra little kick out of weakening the Public Records Law because its loudest defender is the press -- that whiny, liberal, nosy, know-it-all press. Unfortunately, expanding secret government hurts all 16-million of Florida's citizens.

There should be a better way to get even. Maybe once a year, all the press people could line up in the Capitol courtyard and the legislators could go down the line and give each one a boot in the seat of the pants. I will cheerfully take one from the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House for each proposed public-records exemption that they block this year.

It's the conservative thing to do.

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