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Records bills clear a Senate panel

The controversial bills, offered in the fight against terrorism, propose exemptions to the Public Records Law.

By STEVE BOUSQUET

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 2001


The controversial bills, offered in the fight against terrorism, propose exemptions to the Public Records Law.

TALLAHASSEE -- Five new terrorism-related exemptions to the public records law won support from a Senate committee Tuesday, but one was so controversial that House Speaker Tom Feeney is unlikely to let it come up for a vote.

The most controversial bill would allow the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to seal police or court records for seven days if the FDLE convinces a judge that release of the information "would jeopardize the ability of law enforcement to prevent or reduce the threat or an act of terrorism." An arrest record or a defendant's first court appearance could not be kept confidential, but a judge could extend the secrecy provision for 14 extra days.

The other four bills, which were unanimously approved, would exempt from disclosure private company or government security plans, hospital emergency plans, locations of state-owned drugs to combat bioterrorism, and requests for public records by a police agency in the course of an investigation.

All of the bills were sought by FDLE. All are championed by Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville.

"I don't like shielding anything from the public's view," Brown-Waite said. But as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said, "we're going to have less freedom of access to information relating to possible terrorist activities."

Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, a candidate for attorney general, cast the only vote against the bill to temporarily close police records. He called it "blatantly unconstitutional" because it would give the FDLE and a judge the power to make a record secret at the stroke of a pen, when the authority to make records secret rests with the Legislature.

"FDLE is buying the state a lawsuit it can't win," said Burt.

The House is not likely to go along the bill that Burt opposes.

Feeney said he will discourage House members from taking up anything controversial in the two-week special session that began Tuesday. That includes bills opposed by the First Amendment Foundation, a group affiliated with Florida news organizations that opposes many new exemptions.

"We have a proud tradition of open records, and this particular exemption would allow an otherwise discoverable record to be exempt. It's difficult to reconcile that with the Florida Constitution," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

- Staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

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