Volume 28, Number 4 E A monthly report of mass media law in Florida
Published by The Brechner Center for Freedom ofr I,,~ 1... a', U College ofJournalism and Communications U University ofFlorida
to properly notify
public of meetings
WEEK WACHEE- City
commissioners in Weeki Wachee met
three times without publicly advertising
the meetings in local newspapers, as
required by Florida's Sunshine Law,
according to the St. Petersburg Times.
Public notices about the meetings
ACCESS inside the
attraction, but could only be viewed by
the park's paying guests. Notices were
also placed in the park's administrative
office, which is situated behind a fence
and bushes without a sign indicating that
it carries out city business.
Only one public member attended any
of the meetings, a government attorney
who heard aboutit from another lawyer.
The St. Petersburg Times didn't receive a
notice of the meetings, despite the fact it
has a standing request with the Weeki
Wachee city clerk to be contacted about
"It slipped my mind," part-time clerk
Jennifer Card said.
None of the city's business was
recorded on tape and written minutes
were not available. The city's failure to
notify the public about its meetings has
many citizens concerned.
"That's kind of the problem with
what's going on," said George
Angeliadis, attorney for a group of new
"You've got nine people in control of
the city who are regulating some
important issues," he said. "No, I don't
think it's sufficient notice."
City Attorney Joe Mason said the city
would take steps in the future to notify
the Times of upcoming meetings.
Counties end online access to records
SARASOTA In response to a County Clerk of Court R. B. "Chips"
revised order by the Florida Supreme Shore terminated Internet access to
Court, Manatee and Sarasota counties public records through their sites.
ended online access to court records. Karl Youngs, attorney for the Sarasota
The Court issued an order in February, clerk's office, said they don't have the
calling for a moratorium to online access staff to respond to the number of
of court records. It requests they expect, based on
attempted to clarify a A C C E SS the tens of thousands of pages
November order for clerks viewed every day.
who "overreacted" by RECORDS Shore, whose site gets an
shutting down their Web average of 3-million hits per
sites and for other clerks who did not month, said that his lawyers may
restrict access enough, said First challenge the order.
Amendment Foundation attorney Jon "We've got some attorneys up in
Kaney. Tallahassee we've been talking to and
The order made it clear that clerks who they're looking into it, but I just don't
were providing Internet access to court know what we can do," Shore said.
case documents must cease the practice. Manatee and Sarasota counties have
Clerks may only provide documents been in the forefront of making court
through a terminal in the clerk's office or records available online for the public.
in response to an e-mail request for a The order is in effect until a committee
document, develops new rules for access to online
In response, Sarasota County Clerk of court records, which is not set to happen
Court Karen Rushing and Manatee before July 2005. (2/20/04)
Local judges can release DCF records
TALLAHASSEE-The Florida giving local judges such discretion
Supreme Court ruled that local judges, in would cause disorder, forcing the state to
addition to courts in Tallahassee, can post lawyers in all 67 counties at the
order the release of agency files, public's expense. The Sun-Sentinel
The decision ruled in favor of the disagreed, saying that the state was
South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which had making it too easy for government
asked West Palm Beach County state officials to hide documents.
officials to turn over documents in its "...It's one of the great victories for
investigation of a couple accused of public records," David Bralow, general
child neglect. Newspaper attorneys counsel for the newspaper, said. "It
argued the Sun-Sentinel should not have makes no sense to make people go to
to travel to Tallahassee to obtain public Tallahassee to get public records relating
documents housed in the Department of to kids in Miami orPalmBeach."
Children&Families (DCF)PalmBeach He added that, although the court's
County office, ruling only affects the DCF, it could
The seven-member court unanimously become the basis for similar changes in
agreed that, "It seems that such inquiries other state agencies.
could be conducted most efficiently in The newspaper was looking for
the county in which the records are documents on Donald and Amy Hutton,
maintained and the DCF personnel who have since agreed to 10 years of
familiar with the records, as well as the probation in return for having the
interested parties, are located." charges against them reduced to four
Attorneys for the state argued that counts of child neglect. (2/8/04)
ACCESS RECORDS CONTINUED
withhold money due
to lack of access
TAMPA Hillsborough County
commissioners voted to temporarily
withhold $1.3 millionfromthe
Hillsborough Area Regional Transit
Authority (HART) because it rejected an
auditor's request to access records.
County Auditor Kathleen Mathews
told commissioners that the authority
twice refused her or her assistant access
to review records at HARTline. She said
that both times the visits coincided with
HARTline board meetings and the
organization refused access because
officials who could help her were in the
"They're pulling the records for us
and putting them into a workroom for us,
but if we can't get into the building, we
can't look at those records," Mathews
HARTline is an independent agency,
but its books should be open to public
inspections, according to an article in
The Tampa Tribune. Record reviews are
usually supervised which is why
Mathews and her assistant were turned
away when the supervisors were in a
"Well, I don't think they understand
the Public Records Law," Mathews said.
"They felt like one of their top people
should be there."
Following the commissioners' vote to
withhold the money, the organization
designated additional people to assist
auditors. This included employees who
don't usually attend board meetings with
Copies of case opinions, Florida
Attorney General opinions, or
!,., 'hia, .i reported in any issue as
"on file" may be obtained upon
requestfrom the Brechner Center for
Freedom of Information, College of
Journalism and Communications,
3208 Weimer Hall, P.O. Box 118400,
University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
32611-8400, (352) 392-2273.
City initiates new open records policy
following statewide audit outcomes
JACKSONVILLE- The city of within five days."
Jacksonville developed a new open People seeking public records can g
records policy after a newspaper audit directly to the department that keeps tl
revealed that city officials don't always records or, if they don't know where to
efficiently get public records to those go, they cancall 630-CITY to make the
who request them. request.
In January, reporters and other media "If people don't want to reveal their
employees from about 30 Florida names, they don't have to," Roman sai
newspapers posed as citizens at 234 local "They'll be given case numbers and ca
agencies in 62 Florida counties. They check on the status of their request by
asked for records such as: 911 call logs using the number."
from sheriff's offices, city managerjob The Florida Public Records Law say
reviews, county administrator e-mails and the public can inspect any government
school superintendent cell phone bills, document, unless it is specifically
The study revealed that 43 percent of exempted. Gov. Bush agreed to study
the agencies audited made unlawful the audit and "if there are deficiencies i
demands or refused to comply with the system then we will look at it."
"In response to the articles, and while
acknowledging a fragmented approach to
handling public records requests,
[Jacksonville] Mayor John Peyton wants
to make the process easier," Susan
Wiles, Peyton's chief of special
initiatives and communications, said.
No\\, people who want to request
records fromthe city cancall 630-CITY
and ask for the information," Public
Information Chief Dave Roman said.
"Someone from the city's public
information office will respond to the
request within one day and provide the
information as soon as possible, usually
Yet his office was the only state
agency audited that didn't comply with
the law. The media volunteer was told to
give her name and address, in addition to
filling out or signing a written request
form. A Bush spokeswoman denied that
the governor's office violated the law
and suggested that the volunteer
misunderstood what she was told.
"The results were disappointing for a
state that prides itself on being a leader
in open government," State Attorney
Charlie Crist said. "My hope is that once
the results of the audit become known,
this will become an educational
Court overturns ruling, seals grand
jury transcripts in Aisenberg trial
TAMPA The 11t Circuit Court of
Appeals overturned a district judge's
order to unseal grand jury transcripts in
the prosecution of Steven and Marlene
The court claimed that U.S. District
Judge Steven D. Merryday abused his
discretion in his decision to unseal the
It also reduced the $2.9-million award
given to the Aisenbergs' attorneys for
legal fees to $1.5 million.
The court rejected the portion of
Merryday's ruling that unsealed the
secret grand jury transcripts so the
public could learn the facts about the
failed prosecution against the
Aisenbergs, who were on trial for the
1997 disappearance of their baby
"Given that the government's conduct
already has been revealed and publicly
aired, the district court erred in
concluding that the grand jury
transcripts must be disclosed so that the
public can know about this misdirected
prosecution," the court wrote in an
opinion. "The public already knows."
The Aisenberg's attorney Barry
Cohen said that he will consider an
appeal after reading the ruling.
"[The ruling] totally interferes with the
public's right to know and there was no
good legal basis to maintain the secrecy
of the grand jury in this case," he said.
"We will live with the consequences of
this case; I just think it's unfortunate
because the effect of it is not going to be
in the public interest."
2 The Brechner Report April 2004
ACCESS RECORDS CONTINUED
Court grants Express access to social
security numbers under new exemption
ORANGE PARK A circuit court
ruled that Express Track Data, a data
aggregator who gathers information from
public records and sells access to
commercial customers, is entitled to
access the social security numbers
collected by the town of Orange Park,
under the state's new social security
The court also found the town had
provided Attorney General Charlie Crist
with inaccurate information when
obtaining his opinion to support its
decision to withhold the information.
In January 2003, Express sent a public
records request to Orange Park, asking
for information concerning the town's
residential and commercial water, sewer
and garbage customers. These records
included the social security numbers the
town collected from its water and sewer
Orange Park denied the request, citing
Section 119.0721 which provides a partial
exemption of social security numbers
from the Public Records Law. In April
2003, the town requested an opinion from
Crist, asking whether Express fell within
the legitimate business purpose
In its request Orange Park said,
"Express operates a website whereby the
general public can purchase access to a
database in exchange for a fee." It added
that "Express is engaged in the bulk sale
of social security numbers to the general
public." Crist relied on this information
when he issued AGO 03-23, supporting
Later, the court evidence established
that "the general public cannot access
information on Express's website" and
"Express is not engaged in the bulk sale
of social security numbers," according to
the reported summary judgment.
Furthermore, it clarified that Section
119.0721 was established to prevent
fraud, identity theft and invasion of
privacy. In this case, the exemption was
"not intended to prevent data
aggregators from receiving records which
include social security numbers."
Following the ruling, the Attorney
General's Office removed all references to
Express in AGO 03-23.
Clear Channel adopts "zero tolerance"
policy for indecency, fires radio host
WASHINGTON-Facinga$755,000 Love Sponge, the notoriously nasty
fine, Clear Channel Communications fired morning show on radio station WXTB,
Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and 97.9 FM. The commission proposed
announced its new "zero tolerance" fining $27,500 for each of the 26 episodes
policy for indecency. that were aired. Clear
According to \NDECE]NCY Channel was fined an
industry publication additional $40,000 for
Radio & Records, the station record-keeping
broadcaster also suspended the airing of violations, which it can pay or appeal
shock jock Howard Stem's syndicated within 30 days.
morning show. Following the FCC's proposed fine,
Clear Channel said that the decisions Clear Channel called for the agency to
are consistent with its new policy, convene industry-wide "Local Values
"If a DJ is found to be in violation of Task Forces" to develop clear guidelines
FCC rules, there will be no appeals and on what was or wasn't appropriate
no intermediate steps," Clear Channel language.
Radio executive John Hogan said. "If "Clear Channel is serious about
they break the law by broadcasting helping address the rising tide of
indecent material, they will not work for indecency on the airwaves," President
Clear Channel." Mark Mays said. "As broadcast
In February, the Federal licensees, we are fully responsible for
Communications Commission (FCC) what our stations air, and we intend to
proposed a $755,000 fine against Clear make sure all our DJs and programmers
Channel for airing a sexually explicit radio understand what is and what is not
show on four stations. The stations, appropriate."
which were all in Florida, aired Bubba the (' 'i 14,)
wins defamation suit
TAMPA A federal court jury in the
U.S. District Court Middle District of
Florida found in favor of
YachtBroker.com in its lawsuit against
YachtWorld.com. The jury awarded the
organization compensatory and punitive
damages for the defamatory statements
published on YachtWorld.com's Web
site, which claimed that YachtBroker.com
trespassed on its site.
"This verdict is a big win for
YachtBroker.com and for Internet
commerce," said G. Donovan Conwell,
head of Fowler White Boggs Banker's
Technology Group, who represented
YachtBroker.com. "This was one of the
key battles over who owns information
posted on the website and this jury
understood that it belongs to whoever
created or authored it, not to whoever
happens to post it on a website."
The first lawsuit issue involved
BoatRover, which allowed brokers and
guests to look for yachts posted on
various online sites. The second issue
was about YachtBroker.com's Valet
Service, which eased the process of
listing yachts on multiple Web sites.
YachtBroker. com claimed that
YachtWorld.com published false
statements that YachtBroker.com's
actions were illegal. During the trial,
YachtBroker.com successfully defended
its technologies, showing that the yacht
listings belonged to the listing yacht
brokers, notYachtWorld.com. (1/23/04)
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The Brechner Report April 2 3
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The Brechner Report April 2004 h
Evidence abounds: Public records are public treasures
The annual "Sunshine Sunday" array of articles and budget, lawsuit, police report, foreclosure, building
editorials by newspapers statewide recently spotlighted permit or government study or report can help people
the value of public records in Florida. digest, follow and analyze important community
But the benefits of public records shine daily in print, developments and trends. For more examples, see story
online and on the air. postings from around the state on my Web site at
In fact, it's harder to find a story that doesn 't use a www.idiganswers.com. Even as news stories are
public record than one that does. Eliminate every news excellent tools for teaching and learning about the value
The report triggered or I of public information, public records access isn't
B a k P enhanced by a public foremost about the press.
B ack Pag record and Floridians Joe Adams It's about the public.
By Joe Adams would face huge gaps in news
Worse yet, huge holes would exist in the public
consciousness regarding important issues.
For instance, without public records, the public would lack
information to question a criminal justice system that repeatedly
gave breaks and second chances to the suspect in 11-year-old
Carlie Brucia's abduction and death in Sarasota.
Without public records, readers wouldn't have read Fred
Schulte's "Drugging the Poor" series in the South Florida Sun-
Sentinel. The series revealed state flaws that allowed dozens of
doctors to prescribe dangerous drugs at taxpayer expense,
despite patients who died from overdoses and instances where
the doctors faced drug or misconduct charges.
Without public records, readers would have missed "Justice
Withheld," a series by The Miami Herald's Manny Garcia and
Jason Grotto that uncovered how nearly one of every four men
prosecuted during the last decade for sex crimes against Florida
children had their convictions wiped clean by judges and
All three reports inspired action. State lawmakers called for
hearings to explore why Carlie's accused killer evaded custody
despite several probation violations. The prescription stories
spawned the Senate Select Subcommittee on Medicaid
Prescription Drug Over-Prescribing, and several doctors named
in the series later faced disciplinary actions or criminal charges.
A week after The Herald series, lawmakers crafted legislation to
curb the use of withhold of adjudication, a legal break that allows
offenders who plead to a crime to avoid a felony conviction.
But records-generated stories don't have to be multi-day
blockbusters or move state lawmakers to aid the public.
Every story based on records such as a meeting agenda,
Important life decisions hinge on what we know. From
buying property and checking criminal backgrounds to selecting
a school and researching a doctor, public records offer crucial
insights for informed choices about our families, businesses,
government and ourselves.
How many sexual predators and offenders live near me? Is
that charity worthy of my donation? How are my tax dollars
being spent? People can answer those and many other questions
through public documents. Those opportunities fade, however,
when lawmakers approve unjustified exemptions and when
custodians of public records place barriers before public access.
A recent audit on public records access statewide by 30
newspapers indicated public records aren't nearly as public as
they should be. The newspapers sent anonymous
representatives to various public offices for public documents.
Only 57 percent of the public officials complied with requests as
the law required. Many wanted to know the intentions of the
records seeker which the law doesn't require be shared. A
Sarasota Herald-Tribune requester nearly got arrested after
asking for the local school superintendent's cell phone records.
Too many public officials hesitate to comply with records
requests out of unfamiliarity with the law. More education is
essential. Fortunately, the evidence abounds: Public records are
Lawmakers should remember it when pondering proposed
records exemptions in this legislative session and those to come.
Joe Adams, an editorial writer at The Florida Times-Union,
is author of The Florida Public Records Handbook published
by the First Amendment Foundation. His Web site,
www.idiganswers.com, focuses on Florida public records use
and open government news.