A Florida House committee approved a bill that’s aimed at preventing government agencies from going to court to try to block the public’s constitutionally protected access to government records.
Republican Rep. Ray Rodrigues said there’s a growing trend of agencies using the courts in an effort to avoid fulfilling public records requests. He said what government agencies should be doing is providing the requested records or citing the exemption under law that allows them to keep the records from the public. If the requester doesn’t agree the exemption applies to the records sought, the requester can then sue the agency. If the requester wins, the agency has to reimburse his or her legal costs.
“What we are seeing happen across the state in a number of entities is that rather than providing the record or the exemption, instead, the government entity is filing a civil suit against the individual,” Rodrigues said.
Unlike when an individual sues for access to a record, when an agency initiates the lawsuit and loses, it doesn’t have to pay the legal costs of the record requester. Rodrigues said that could have a chilling effect on people seeking records they’re entitled to.
“What this bill would do is it would crack down on that practice and say, ‘No, a government entity can’t respond to a public records request by initiat[ing] a civil lawsuit against an individual who has filed the request,” Rodrigues said.
The House Oversight, Transparency and Public Management Subcommittee voted 7-4 in favor of the bill. The four no votes were cast by Democrats.
The open government watchdog group First Amendment Foundation, which receives financial support from The Associated Press and other news organizations, supports the legislation.
“We love it,” Barbara Petersen, the group’s president, said in an email. “Imagine being sued by your government simply because you exercised a constitutional right in making a public record request. I find it outrageous.”
Rodrigues said a dozen or so such lawsuits have been filed by government agencies over the past year.
“If you go back a decade ago and there were none, and now you see over the last year or so it is increasing, it becomes clear that government entities are viewing this as a tool, a tool that does not serve the public interest and is not in the spirit of our government in sunshine standards,” Rodrigues said.
Democratic Rep. Margaret Goode said the measure would take away a tool from local governments, and Democratic Rep. Javier Fernandez said he doesn’t think a few cases represent a growing trend.
“Should that trend continue to grow and the number of cases escalates in the next few years, I’d certainly support this bill in the future,” Fernandez said.
Brendan Farrington reports for the Associated Press.