Clouds in the Sunshine

by Drew R. Hamilton

The Sunshine Laws, as they are commonly referred, were enacted beginning in the 1950s on the state level.  An inquisitive public demanded that government meetings be transparent, in order to sustain a sound democratic foundation.   Open-meeting regulations had reached the federal level during the 1970s and today each of the 50 states, the federal government and the District of Columbia all have some form of Sunshine Law.

Open-meeting regulations differ from state to state and on the federal level.  But, what distinguishes a state’s Sunshine Law from another state’s open-meeting regulations are the exemptions in that state.  Exemptions are the provisions that the local legislature or governing agency has decided to conceal with the public’s best interest in mind.

Tim Nickens, the Editorials Editor for the Saint Petersburg Times, dissected the Sunshine Law into two parts: meetings of public officials [s. 286.011, F.S.] and public records [s. 119.011(1), F.S.].  Nickens went on to explain that there is far more information found within public records than in government meetings open to the public, “[Chapter 119] is one of the most effective statutes the public has and journalists have for accountability and to hold your local government responsible, because a lot of times, unfortunately, folks aren’t going to tell you the truth, but there is, generally, a paper trail some where and the paper trail is often more revealing than what these men and women are going to tell you, in sound bites, on TV.”

Nickens explained what the climate for journalists was like prior to the enactment of the Sunshine Laws: “…in the late 80s, I would spend a lot of time in front of locked doors and hallways waiting for people to come out and tell me what had happened.  Now of course they took votes in public but by then it was all done.  That wasn’t where the real decision making was going on.”

Generally speaking, the exemptions of a state’s open-meeting regulations are the determining factor of the strength of the law.  Therefore, an examination of the exemptions will determine the extent of transparency displayed by the governing bodies of each state.

Nickens points out a discrepancy between state legislative members and local government that allows members of the Florida Legislature to circumvent the open-meetings regulations, “…there are no real requirements for notice, necessarily, like there are for public meetings at the local government level…you still basically have to go find [state level officials].”

In Florida, there are many exemptions that allow a meeting to be closed.  However, according to the website of the Office of the Attorney General of the state of Florida, “the Sunshine Law should be liberally construed to give effect to its public purpose while exemptions should be narrowly construed.”  This means that the open-meetings regulations should cast a broad net, while the exemptions should be specifically stated instances, in which, it serves the public’s best interest to withhold the content of the meeting from the public.

The Florida State Legislature defines the term “exemption” to include a provision of general law, which allows that a specific meeting, or a portion of that meeting, be protected from the public access requirements.  There were two landmark court cases that helped define the line of “specificity” and how it would be applied: the Halifax Hosiptal Medical Center v. News-Journal Corporation (FL 1999) and the Baker County Press, Inc. v. Baker County Medical Services, Inc.  It had been determined by the Florida State Supreme Court that the Halifax case did not meet the constitutional standard of specificity.  Yet, the same court concluded that the Baker case had reached the constitutional standard, not met in the Halifax case, and awarded the exemption.

The office of the Attorney General (click here for link) vigorously reviews the application of exemptions, knowing that government officials will attempt to circumvent the open-meetings regulations by manipulating the possible nature of topics discussed in a meeting that they would prefer be closed.  The Attorney General’s office states, “If the board or agency feels aggrieved, then the remedy lies in the halls of the Legislature and not in efforts to circumvent the plain provisions of the statute by devious ways in the hope that the judiciary will read some exception into the law.”  Nickens confirmed that the members of the state legislature can ultimately tell the press that vote-pending legislation was not being discussed.

In Florida, an exemption has a five-year lifespan.  At the conclusion of five years, the exemption must be reenacted by the state legislature for it to continue.  A two-thirds vote is required to enact or reenact an exemption.

Some of the more common exemptions in Florida are abuse meetings and hearings dealing with minors.  The Florida State Child Abuse Death Review Committee (click here for link), whose mission is to “conduct detailed reviews of the facts and circumstances surrounding child abuse and neglect deaths in which a verified report of abuse or neglect was accepted by the Florida Abuse Hotline within the Department of Children and Family Services,” are exempt from the open-meetings regulations.  However, the closed portion of the meeting must be recorded.  The recording is protected from disclosure.

Meetings of domestic violence fatality review teams are closed to the public, during times in which the names of victims of abuse or individuals providing information about a case of domestic abuse are discussed.

Many of the exemptions have to deal with concealing the identity of minors or victims of sexual abuse crimes.

Exemptions such as the ability of a judge to clear a courtroom, except the listed participants, during the testimony of a victim of a sex crime, at the victim’s request, serve a very meaningful purpose in protecting victim’s rights.

However, there are exemptions that have raised controversy.  In 2001, the Florida Legislature passed the Earnhardt Family Protection Act, which required an expressed permission release from the victim’s next of kin.  Nickens explained how the state government has overreacted in this bill, by accommodating the requests of the Earnhardt family to seal autopsy photos.

A complete list of Florida’s Sunshine Law exemptions can be found here (click here for link).

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Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 6:53 am  Comments (20)  

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  1. I love how Nickens described journalism in the 80s. Waiting outside locked doors hoping he can get some info about what just happened. I just interviewed Lucy Morgan for a personality profile, and we chatted about her early days as a reporter in the 60s and 70s, before the sunshine laws were established. She said the first government agency she covered was the Crystal River City Council. They would let her sit in during the meetings, but at times they would tell the reporters, “Now y’all don’t write this down.” Lucy, being Lucy, would report it anyway. Needless to say, she pissed off a lot of people in her long career.

    Good post!

  2. Very informational. Looks like you took a lot away from Mr. Nicken’s.

  3. Good background research. It is obvious that you back up your opinion with facts, and a lot of them. You went as far as to read the actual law, very nice. Good background, good writing, good blog!

    Amanda Stone

  4. Wow! Very detailed and professional, I enjoyed your point of view and depth of analysis for each topic. I feel that governmental institutions are quick to pick the narrow path in regards to the sunshine laws. As Nicken’s mentioned, some legislative officials will tell you that they are not discussing anything legislative related, just so they have the opportunity to keep the material private. We all know that the minute the door is shut, the session really begins. It is a great thing when we can essentially call them out on their disobedience to the sunshine laws. It proves for great rewards in journalism!

  5. Drew, I think what you have written here was very interesting. You obviously did your homework when it comes to the definitions and history behind the Florida Sunshine Laws. I was specifically impressed by the way you captured Tim Nicken’s personality throughout your piece. Nicely done. 🙂

  6. I love your title. I was a little confused at first thinking I was looking at the wrong blog, but then I read further and realized it was the right one. I can definitely tell you took away a lot of information from Nickens.

  7. This blog is very informative, but lacking personality. There for a minute I thought I was reading an excerpt from Wikipedia or the like. Good utilization of quotes from Nicken.

  8. Great post… I feel like through your blog and Nickens’ presentation, I am an expert in public records. The links and outside information is great and this is what a blog post should look like.

    Way to set the bar high, buddy.

  9. Wow. I feel like I know a lot more know after reading this blog. You taught me new information that I did not know. The links you provided were excellent to further expand your information.

  10. You’re blog was very informative and having links available for the reader was a brilliant idea. I didn’t even know that an exemption had a lifespan.

  11. I really enjoyed your blog and how you mentioned Nicken’s discussing how things were back in the ’80s…Sunshine law seems like it has changed journalism and reporting for the better…nice blog

    Trevor

  12. Drew,
    This blog taught me a lot about the depths of the Sunshine Laws. Your writing style is very professional and organized. The links you added made it easy to continue on and learn more about public records and what’s happening here in Florida.
    thanks for the information.

  13. I like that you included lots of links and background info that wasn’t necessarily mentioned in class. It looks like you did a lot of extra work to put this post together. Some of the lengthy quotes started to lose my interest though. In my opinion it is only necessary to include the most important point in a quote and then you can explain the full main idea separately.

  14. I love that back ground. Your facts backing up your opinions impressed me the most. I can tell you did your research. The facts at the beginning is what kept me engaged, because it made me believe you knew what you were talking about. Good blog!

  15. Your post was informative about Nickens. I like that you included court cases that went along with Sunshine Laws to prove how they are put to good use by journalists or whoever.

  16. First of all, I just want to say great job on the blog and your research is amazing. I would have hated to be a journalist prior to the Sunshine Laws because I would not have been able to provide my readers with accurate and persise information. I think it is such a great law for journalist, but not a great law for the average citizen. With this law, we are able to watch people and make sure scandalous actions are not taking place. Thank-you for your research in this subject. I didn’t know that in Florida, an exemptions last 5 years and is only continued by a 2/3 vote by the state legislatures. You provided us with in depth knowledge about 119 and open-meetings.

  17. I liked your blog and how you made sure that Nickens personality shined throughout it. I can tell you did a lot of research on everything before you wrote because this post was extremely informative.

    My only discrepancy was at the beginning of the post. I felt like you just jumped into to it and I honestly didn’t know it was even about our guest speaker until the third graf, but aside from that everything else was very well written.

  18. Your blog is very extensive. It looks like you learned a lot from Nickens. Great work researching!

  19. I like that you took such an in-depth look at the Sunshine Laws. Your use of Nickens quotes was useful. And I like that you included that the Legislature can circumvent the open-meeting regulations. I found it very interesting that exemptions have a lifespan of 5 years.

  20. You had some great links that gave your blog a twist. Great blog! I also would have hated to be a journalist before the Sunshine Laws. I wouldn’t have been able to give my readers the entire story. Great post!


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