Florida Papers Demand Open Records

By: Brendan Farrington, Associated Press Writer

(AP) Concerned about legislative efforts to restrict access to public records, more than half of Florida’s daily newspapers published editorials Sunday stressing the importance of maintaining an open government.

“I don’t want to characterize it as us versus the Legislature, but one of the roles newspapers play is to galvanize public opinion around issues,” said Pat Yack, president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and editor of The Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville.

The editors group asked each of the state’s newspapers to participate in what they called “Sunshine Sunday.” The goal was to keep Florida’s reputation as a model for open government from slipping away. More than two dozen papers participated.

“Even lawmakers look better in the sunshine,” the Tallahassee Democrat wrote. “Closed government makes voters wonder what they’re up to — and guessing isn’t good. Facts and information always win in the end.”

Some bills before the legislature would block access to crime photos, allow doctors and pharmacists to keep reports about adverse incidents secret, keep public utility records secret, and allow officials to meet privately to negotiate contracts.

A Senate committee is considering 15 public records bills Monday, including the measure on doctors’ adverse incident reports.

“We may be in the Information Age, but our Legislature keeps trying to put records containing important public information out of Floridians’ reach,” the St. Petersburg Times wrote in its editorial. “This year, lawmakers’ annual attempt to close off whole categories of records is broader and more brazen than usual.”

Orlando Sentinel Editor Tim Franklin said reasons for the increased pressure to restrict public records include the desire for tighter security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, identity theft fears, and a concern about easy access to records on the Internet.

“It’s viewed as politically popular at the moment and what concerns me is that there are some in government that wanted to close public records for a long time that now have the cover of security or privacy to try to do it,” Franklin said.

The public sometimes takes public records for granted and may not realize the impact of closing them, he said.

“This isn’t just a media issue,” he said. “Take the basic act of buying a house. Without access to public records, you couldn’t find out how much the previous owner had paid, you couldn’t find out what your neighbors paid, you couldn’t find out what the previous tax payments were, you couldn’t find out the crime rate in the neighborhood.”

The group picked the day to run the editorials because it was the Sunday before James Madison’s birthday. Madison was the “Father of the Constitution” and an ardent supporter of the First Amendment provision providing freedom of the press.

“Open government leads to public policy and government accountability. Closed government breeds mistrust and dissension. Citizens rightly wonder what their leaders are tying to hide,” the Orlando Sentinel wrote in its editorial.

James Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said readers should be made aware that the laws benefit them. In an editorial he wrote at the request of the Orlando Sentinel, he encouraged readers to cut out any story in which a reporter used access to a government meeting or records. “Ideally you’ll have a bunch of holes in your paper and if you sent that to your legislator it will make a point,” Naughton said.

Neil Brown, managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times, said the media recognizes there is a need to keep some information private. Part of the newspaper group’s effort is to work with lawmakers to help guard privacy and security while preserving the right to information, he said.

“I would hate to see the issues get demagogued to the point where Floridians are given a phony choice, which is no privacy or complete secrecy,” he said. “These issues are much more complicated than that.”

On the Net:

Florida Society of Newspaper Editors: http://fsne.org/welcome.shtml

Poynter Institute for Media Studies: http://www.poynter.org/

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