By: Mark Fitzgerald
Across Florida this weekend, daily newspapers big and small will celebrate “Sunshine Sunday.” This campaign isn’t boosterism for beaches, theme parks or citrus fruit — it’s a serious effort to preserve the best set of open-government and freedom of information (FOI) laws on the books anywhere in these United States.
It’s also been a highly effective campaign since it was begun two years ago in the aftermath of 9/11, when legislators — motivated by na?vete or cynicism — attempted a wholesale rewriting of FOI laws in the name of security. The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors (FSNE), which organizes Sunshine Sunday, says the effort has helped prevent the passage of more than 300 proposed exemptions to the Government in Sunshine laws.
So this Sunday, as they have done every year since those uncertain days after the terror attacks, newspapers from The Miami Herald in the south to the Pensacola News Journal in the northern panhandle will publish editorials, cartoons and op-ed commentary reminding Florida citizens of the value of government transparency. Terry Eberle, the executive editor of Florida Today in Melbourne, is one of three editors coordinating this year’s campaign. He says Thursday that all but a handful of Florida’s 40 daily newspapers will participate.
“It’s up even from last year,” Eberle says, “and I think the reason is that, although [open-government laws] in Florida are part of our constitution, every year the legislators always take up exemptions. And every year, it seems to be more and more.”
Among the goofiest proposed exceptions now pending in the legislature would impose a $5 million fine on any police or government agency that tracked gun sales at pawn shops.
The exemptions continue against the clear will of ordinary Floridians, who have a long history of supporting government transparency. In its Sunshine Sunday editorial, The St. Augustine Record notes that Florida had a law guaranteeing access to public records as long ago as 1909.
In 1992, voters first enshrined FOI laws in the state Constitution. While some politicians may have pretended to be shaken after 9/11 by the alleged security problems of keeping government records open — the Florida public that pays for those records clearly is not. In 2002, voters passed by a lopsided 76.6% a referendum requiring the legislature to muster a two-thirds vote for any exemption to open-government laws.
Yet, just last month, Florida citizens saw again the contempt many bureaucrats have for their right to know. The Florida Press Association, the First Amendment Foundation and newspapers around the state conducted the kind of public records law audit that newspapers in other states have carried out — and found the same kind of depressing results.
First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Peterson says that barely half, 57%, of state agencies, school boards, sheriff offices and local and county governments, complied with the law.
“We’re trying to keep this in front of people, because this isn’t about newspapers,” Florida Today’s Eberle says, “it’s about the people of Florida — it’s their Sunshine laws.”
Citizen Markey’s Modest Proposal
Credit for alerting Newspaper Beat to this next item goes to our man inside the Beltway, Washington Editor Todd Shields.
During the Congressional hearings on indecency in the broadcast media the other day, U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) offered his own definition of indecency. Markey fiercely opposed repealing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) cross-ownership regulation that prevented a daily newspaper from owning a television or radio station in the same market — and he apparently figured hearings convened to discuss Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction and Howard Stern’s potty mouth were a good place to continue the cross-ownership debate.
Markey came to the hearing with a proposed amendment to redefine indecency in the context of the FCC granting of broadcast licenses. “It shall be considered indecent and patently offensive to contemporary community standards for the local media marketplace for a single person under Commission rules to own 3 television station licenses, 8 radio station licenses, the only newspaper in town, the only cable system in town, and all the Internet assets of such entities, within one community.”
Markey’s amendment also had a proposed punishment: “In lieu of a monetary fine, Commissioners who misguidedly supported the massive deregulation of media ownership shall be required to (1) take remedial courses in the civic importance of media diversity and localism and the informational needs of citizens of a great democracy; and (2) shall be required to watch the movie “Citizen Kane” over and over again until they flinch at the word ‘rosebud’.”
Perhaps a ‘Pagination Malfunction’?
Front page banner headline and subhed of the Thursday March 11 edition of Red Streak, the Chicago Sun-Times youth paper: “DO CAMPUSES REALLY NEED BEER? College drinking is the real March Madness. Schools try to stay dry while accepting millions in beer ads. Page 3”
Front page skybox headline and subhed, same day: “IT’S PARTY TIME. Nine best Irish pubs. Drink with ‘Colin Farrell.’ And more cheap beer.”