Posts Tagged ‘Florida’


State legislatures veer toward secrecy

Troubling legislation in four states would seriously undermine the public’s right to know and ability to hold government officials accountable.

Two of the bills — in Indiana and New Jersey — would restrict access to police body camera footage. Legislation in Florida would make it more difficult for citizens and the press to challenge improper government secrecy. And Massachusetts lawmakers are set to vote on a measure that, while aimed at improving the state’s public records law, could do the opposite.

Open government groups have raised concerns about each of the proposals.

Indiana: Police video recordings

A still of body camera footage from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department captured in July 2015. The video recorded a confrontation between police and a man who fired shots at officers.

A still image of body camera footage from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department captured in July 2015. The video recorded a confrontation between police officers and a man who fired shots at them.

The Indiana House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill that would impose numerous roadblocks on journalists and others who want to obtain police body camera and dash camera videos.

Police already have wide discretion to deny release of such recordings — decisions that can be difficult if not possible to challenge, according to the Hoosier State Press Association.

Under the legislation, House Bill 1019, only two classes of people would be entitled to inspect police video recordings: (1) those depicted in the videos, and (2) when a video shows the interior of a property, the owner of that property. Neither would be allowed to make copies of the recordings, but rather would only have a right to view them.

Anyone else, including reporters, would have to file a lawsuit to obtain a police video recording. Requesters would have to show that disclosure is in the public interest, does not create “significant risk of substantial harm to any person or to the general public,” and will not prejudice civil or criminal proceedings.

If a court orders release of a recording, police would be required to obscure a litany of depictions, such as acts of severe violence, anyone who is under 18 years of age, and crime victims and witnesses.

Requesters who prevail would not be entitled to get their attorney’s fees reimbursed.

The bill could also hamper newsgathering by requiring record requesters to know particular details of every video being requested. Requesters would have to provide the date and time of the activity that was recorded, where that activity occurred, and the name of at least one person who was “directly involved” in the activity but not in a law enforcement capacity.

The Hoosier State Press Association, Indiana Broadcasters Association and Radio Television Digital News Association are opposed to the legislation.

It now goes before the state Senate.

New Jersey: Police body camera footage, 911 records

Similarly, a New Jersey legislator has introduced a bill that would entirely exempt release of police body camera footage from the state’s public records law, along with audio recordings and transcripts of 911 calls.

The bill’s author, state Sen. Paul Sarlo, has said he might amend the legislation to allow for disclosure when police are involved in altercations.

Sarlo represents several municipalities that are being sued by the press for access to records about a 2014 incident in which police shot and killed a 23-year-old black man.

Florida: Reimbursement of attorney’s fees

A Florida bill would make it more difficult for the public and press to enforce the state’s public records law.

The legislation “would remove the requirement that government officials who intentionally violate the state’s public records law pay attorney’s fees when citizens take them to court,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Instead, the bill would make reimbursement discretionary, letting judges decide when plaintiffs who prevail in public-records lawsuits should have their attorney’s fees covered.

Many states have cost-shifting provisions similar to Florida’s current version, which often are the only way plaintiffs can afford to go to court.

The legislation advanced Tuesday in a state Senate committee; a state House of Representatives committee already signed off on a companion bill.

Massachusetts: Public records law reform needs reform

SPJNE President Danielle McLean and protesters in front of the Massachusetts State House during the Public Records Reform Rally on Jan. 21, 2016. Photo by Joyce Pellino Crane.

SPJNE President Danielle McLean and protesters in front of the Massachusetts State House during the Public Records Reform Rally on Jan. 21, 2016. Photo by Joyce Pellino Crane.

The Massachusetts Senate is expected to vote within the next few weeks on legislation aimed at improving the state’s public records law, but the proposal has numerous problems, according to Danielle McLean, president of SPJ New England and a member of SPJ’s national Freedom of Information Committee.

The measure, along with a companion House bill that passed late last year, seeks to limit some fees assessed to record requesters and provides for the possibility that plaintiffs who prevail in public-records lawsuits can have their legal expenses reimbursed. But as McLean points out, the legislation has serious problems:

  • It welcomes delays. The legislation would allow the government to wait more than two months to respond to record requests. Currently, officials are supposed to respond within 10 days, but the bill would expand that deadline to 60 days for state government and 75 days for local governments.
  • It restricts enforcement. The bill would require that public-records lawsuits be filed within 30 days of a denial being issued, a fairly narrow window to appeal. The legislation also does not mandate that plaintiffs who prevail will get their legal fees reimbursed; that decision would instead be up to a judge.
  • It fails to address gaping holes. The bill also does nothing to make the public records law apply to the governor, state Legislature or state court system, although it does authorize a study to explore that possibility.

McLean and other freedom of information advocates held a rally last week on the steps of the Massachusetts State House in Boston, calling on senators to amend the law so it requires faster responses to public records requests, provides stronger enforcement mechanisms and reduces fees charged to requesters.

Approximately 25 to 30 people participated in the rally, including journalists, activists and college students.

“During the rally, we had some awesome dialogue, made a lot of noise, and gained some good momentum for the cause,” McLean said.

Jonathan Anderson is chair of the Society’s Freedom of Information Committee.

Local government emails at your fingertips, no need for public records request

This is HUGE: The City of Gainesville, Fla., has moved to make public officials’ emails available online — without the need to submit a FOIA request.

Anyone with a computer and Internet connection can scroll through any of the city commissioners’, or even the mayor’s, emails in a user-friendly database. You can search by date, specific mailboxes, or by specific words in either the subject line or body of the email. You can even export them into a ZIP file for further use.

Currently, there are over 10,000 emails searchable that date back to March. Of course, there will be some emails that won’t be available to the public that contain confidential information in accordance with state law. According to an interview between Clerk Commissioner Kurt Lannon and The Alligator, University of Florida’s student newspaper, that only applies to few emails. However, you can still view those emails by submitting a FOIA request.

I asked Lannon via email if the online email access of public officials was likely to help reduce the labor cost in fulfilling open records requests. “Yes, very much so,” he replied. The emails are automatically published to the website, except for the confidential emails that commissioners place in a “do not publish list.”

If I were a reporter in Gainesville, I would be checking the database every day for accidentally published “do not publish list” emails.


On a semi-related note, I suggested this idea of an email database to a reporter interviewing me about my open records lawsuit against the University System of Georgia. I filed suit against them last June for stonewalling and delay tactics in providing me emails. In court, their witnesses testified, and their lawyers argued, that this was the “largest request” for open records the university system had ever dealt with.

Their process for complying with an open records request for emails?

Printing out every email, reviewing and redacting them on paper, then scanning them back into a PDF file as JPEG image files (which effectively disabled the ability to perform keyword searches). This amounted to printing out a little over 12,000 pages to redact a handful of emails.

The reporter who interviewed me asked if I had a suggestion for how this process could be more efficient. Well, it seems Gainesville has come up with the solution. And they’re poised to save labor costs in doing so.

Government agencies subject to freedom of information laws need to catch up with the times. The technology is here and can make their lives easier. I would almost go a step further and say this technology needs to be legislated in other states’ open records laws.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

FOI Daily Dose: More sunshine in Florida, NY shield law saves reporter from testifying

More Sunshine in the Sunshine State

There’s a little more sunshine in the Sunshine State after the 2013 legislative session passed an unusually high number of bills supported by Florida’s First Amendment Foundation (FAF). The FAF announced June 14 that the legislature passed 10 bills they supported, including a bill three years in the making that guarantees citizens the right to speak at government meetings and a transparency bill that requires Florida’s chief financial officer to post agency contacts online.

But the battle for more open government rages on as the legislature also passed 14 bills the FAF opposed and a dozen new exemptions limiting access to public records and open meetings. The running total of exemptions is now “well over 1,000,” according to the FAF.

New York shield law saves reporter from the stand

Thanks to the strong New York shield law, a New York Times freelancer will not be forced to testify about his personal observations involving the arrest of two Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Times freelancer Colin Moynihan wrote a blog post about the Jan. 10 arrest of two protesters who refused to leave Zuccotti Park. When the protesters said they were arrested without warning, city officials subpoenaed Moynihan to determine if the arrest was wrongful, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP). They claimed Moynihan was an “unbiased” witness, unlike other bystanders who would had an allegiance with either the police or the protesters.

But U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff of New York ruled in an 8-page opinion on June 11 that a reporter’s personal observations are protected, like his notes, and a journalist cannot be forced to testify unless there are no alternative sources, according to RCFP.

Rakoff wrote: “Exempting firsthand observations from the scope of the reporter’s privilege would severely chill journalists from engaging in valuable firsthand reporting, such as performed by Moynihan here.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI DAILY DOSE: Fla. records requests get cheaper, push for transparent redistricting in Ohio

Good news: Florida records to cost a little less

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is making it a little cheaper to access public records, easing the costs his open records policy originally required.

The state won’t charge people for public records work that takes less than 30 minutes to complete, according to a post by the Orlando Sentinel’s Central Florida Political Pulse blog. It also won’t charge requesters for the first 30-minute period of work that follows if the search takes longer than the initial half-hour time span.

The hourly rate that requesters will be charged for the time personnel spend on their request will also be changed. The rate was previously based on the salary of the specific person handling the records request, but people will now be charged $19.43 – an administrative assistant’s hourly rate.

Ohioans call for transparent redistricting process

Ohio residents gathered at the statehouse Wednesday to promote the need for transparency in the state’s congressional redistricting process.

People advocated in the first of five planned legislative hearings for representatives to improve the transparency of redistricting by disclosing proposed maps for public feedback prior to voting and to encourage public input in the process.

State lawmakers have until December 7 to approve a new map of the redrawn congressional districts, according to an Associated Press article.

The Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting is running an online political contest where state residents can create maps that can then be voted upon by various users.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

 

FOI DAILY DOSE: Footage of killings private in Fla., federal FOIA responses mixed

Fla. governor keeps killing footage from public view

Just before the weekend began, Fla. Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that would keep photos and video and audio recordings showing a person getting killed from media outlets and the general public.

The bill, signed on June 2, exempts this information from the mandatory disclosure rules for the state’s open records act. Only particular members of the immediate family and local, state and federal government agencies would be allowed access.

Citizens would still be able to request the recordings, but they would have to prove there is a “good cause” for disclosing the records, in accordance with the exemption guidelines.

The bill could make it more difficult to learn the actual circumstances of a person’s death due to a lack of public access to the photographs and recordings, according to Naples Daily News Editor Phil Lewis.

The Hill shows mixed FOIA request responses at federal level

The Hill submitted FOIA requests more than six months ago asking for FOIA logs for over 70 federal agencies.

Requested information included the names of individuals who requested records, the subject of their requests and any affiliations they had. Many departments honored the request, but there wasn’t a consistent standard upheld by executive branch agencies.

Some logs were handwritten, and most agencies took months to release the information. A few departments, though, provided the information within days of the initial request.

The best-responding federal agencies included the Department of Transportation, the Defense Contract Management Agency and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The worst departments were the Department of Health and Human Services, Farm Credit Administration and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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