New Legislation Means Bad News for Public Records Requests

The fanciest frat house in the state.
The fanciest frat house in the state.
Michael Rivera via Wikimedia Commons.

A trio of bills snaking their way through the legislature is pushing closed the door on open government. Although each of the proposals was likely cooked up in the spirit of good intentions, they will rub away at the essential tenets of the Sunshine Laws, critics claim.

That means that we, the public, are getting shafted when it comes to what we can and cannot get our hands on from our governmental overlords.

The first of the bills — HB 179 and its senate twin, SB 200 — would offer a public records request "exemption for the e-mail addresses obtained by tax collector," according to the language. A similar proposal — SPB 7040 — offers a public records request exemption for email addresses collected by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

"It is the Everest of slippery slopes," explains Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit which protects the public's right to access information. "If the rationale applies to tax collectors and highway safety, why doesn't it apply to every email address held by every governmental entity in the state of Florida?"

Petersen explains that both bills have similar aims. The email addresses attached to tax documents and driver's licenses could become the prey of cyber scammers. This legislation purports to keep the sensitive addresses hidden from public scrutiny. 

A noble purpose, Petersen says — but there's a problem with the logic. 

"Exempting something is not going to protect that person from being scammed," she says. "The scam is going to happen anyway. If I am intent on scamming people, I am not going to make a public records request for their email addresses." 

Also, say you make a public records request for tax or driver's license documents. Who's going to pay for the redaction? The redaction will also take time — meaning you've added further cost and time between the public and the requested information. 

Equally problematic is the House Bill 185. This one provides a record exemption for "current or former active duty service members of United States Armed Forces, Reserve Forces, or National Guard & spouses & children." The proposal is particularly popular after ISIS released its "Kill List" of U.S. service members — a list that included Florida residents. But once again, Petersen argues that the proposal is too broad. 

Regardless, she predicts all three bills will pass. "This is shaping up to be a very bad session for us."

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