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FL Bills That Would Change Public Records Law

Image: Florida's Capitol Complex, myflorida.com
Image: Florida's Capitol Complex, myflorida.com

One month into the 2016 legislative session in Tallahassee, and we’ve already seen our share of controversial legislative proposals. So far, there’s been a proposal to make legal abortion a felony, a proposal to open the door to fracking interests and a proposal to prevent counties from banning polystyrene products. Now the Legislature is also considering bills that could undermine transparency in government.

The bills – HB 1021 and SB 1220 – would change the language of the state's current public records law so that judges can decide whether or not to award attorney's fees to people or organizations that win lawsuits to obtain access to public records. Current state law says that when somebody – a media organization, a watchdog organization or an individual – tries to obtain public records and a government agency refuses, the requester has two remedies: to ask an attorney to bring criminal charges or to take the government agency to court. If the requester wins the suit, current law states that the requester "shall" be awarded attorney's fees and court costs. These bills would change that language to say that a judge "may" award those fees – in other words, even if you win a case, a judge could still decide that you’ve got to pay for your trouble.

Most people who file legitimate public records requests – requests for documents that citizens should have the right to review – don't have enough money to take a chance on whether they'll be forced to take a contested request to court. So, more than likely, anyone who isn't wealthy enough to take a chance that they could have to pay their own way won't go the distance with these suits. Which means fewer suits are likely to be filed, and less information will be filtered out to the public. That’s what you call a chilling effect.