© St. Petersburg Times, published October 17, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's long established public records law could be in trouble in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
As legislators prepare for a special budget-cutting session that begins Monday, some are calling for changes in the law that could substantially reduce access to public records. And Florida's sheriffs are pledging to "work like the Dickens" to add exemptions to the law.
At least one lawmaker has suggested a complete suspension of the public records act during an emergency, but others say the state is not likely to go as far as some law enforcement officers would like.
Some law enforcement officials want to keep certain arrests secret. They also want the right to temporarily withhold routine records that are being used in investigations and the right to keep security assessments secret.
"I don't think anyone is comfortable with some things, like arresting people without disclosing the information," says Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, who is a former prosecutor. "We're trying to balance the need of the public to have scrutiny over agencies."
Smith has been asked by Senate President John McKay to craft language for bills to be considered next week. In the House, Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, is performing a similar duty.
"I think it probably won't go too far," Gelber said Tuesday. "I'm trying hard to get everyone's view, and we have to make a case for every exemption."
Florida's Constitution requires legislators to consider each exemption separately and also mandates that each exemption meet a "public necessity" and be no broader than it has to be.
Gelber said he doesn't think legislators will adopt exemptions that would apply to entire categories of records.
Florida's open records tradition dates back nearly a century. It has been reinforced with amendments to the Constitution and court decisions for many years. Under the law, records at state and local governmental agencies are public unless the Legislature has approved a specific exemption.
Even most law enforcement records are public once a criminal investigation is completed or the records have been given to a defendant who has a right to see them when facing trial.
Supporters of the public records law say many of the exemptions law enforcement officers are seeking are already covered by existing law.
For instance, Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell wants a law that would let law enforcement close access to security plans submitted by private industries or information from federal agencies.
Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, says many of the security plans are already exempt under a law that grants an exemption to any property owned or leased to a government agency. Airport, seaport and other security plans and vulnerability assessments are also exempt from the public records law, she says.
Petersen, in a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush last week, urged caution.
"These are truly frightening times," Petersen said. "I believe that we need to be even more vigilant in protecting our constitutional rights and civil liberties. After all, it is the fact that we hold our rights and liberties so dear that truly separates us from those who have struck fear in all our hearts."
Bob Cummings, the No. 2 official at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Sheriff Campbell on Tuesday suggested new public records exemptions at the start of a three-day meeting on domestic preparedness.
Cummings said media access to private industry security plans is "one of the frustrations we're dealing with right now" because firms won't share their internal security plans with agencies, knowing the information is subject to public records access.
"We're looking at what I would call minor tweaks to the public records law to enhance our ability to receive those plans, evaluate them and work hand-in-hand with private enterprise," Cummings said. "That includes our facilities, our water, our seaports, our airports."
Craig Fugate, the state's top disaster preparedness official, said he favors adding two additional exemptions to the public records law. One would exempt the home addresses and phone numbers of emergency operations employees, the same exemption that already applies to fire and police officers. Fugate also said the state should keep confidential the locations of alternate work sites for the governor and other top state officials in the event of terrorism in Florida.
- Staff Writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.