Volume 24, Number 6 E A monthly report of mass media law in Florida
Published by The Brechner Center for Freedom oflI,, 0 U..i... College ofJournalism and Communications U University of Florida
Ex-Mayor's libel suit against FDLE dismissed
MIAMI A circuit judge dismissed
libel suit against the Florida Department
LIBEL Suarez filed the
suit as a result of
a press release
the FDLE distributed in 1997
that described voter fraud during
FORT MYERS The Eagle, a
biweekly newspaper for the Florida Gulf
Coast University, banned human
The ban came in the wake of a
medical practice's attempt to place an ad
in the paper. Specialists in
Reproductive Medicine and Surgery
The release said one of Suarez's campaign
workers obtained and cast three fraudulent
The worker eventually pleaded guilty to three
counts of false reporting in an election and three
counts of casting fraudulent votes.
The FDLE's investigation of Suarez's
campaign resulted in the arrest of dozens of
other people on voter fraud charges and led to
Suarez's 1997 mayoral victory being overturned.
Official agreed to confidentiality
TAMPA University of South
Florida Athletic DirectorPaul Griffin
signed a confidentiality agreement with
Florida 2012, a group trying to bring the
USF is a state university, and there-
fore is subject to Florida's Sunshine
Laws unless specifically exempted.
The agreement came to light after the
St. Petersburg Times requested a copy.
At first, Griffin said he didn't have one.
Then, Florida 2012 provided a copy to
Griffin's confidentiality agreement
prevents Griffin from discussing specific
topics regarding the Olympics in Tampa. Those
topics include budgets, bid plans, strategies,
housing plans and
Griffin agreed in writing not to "disclose any of
such information to any person or use any such
information for any purpose, except at such
times and under circumstances approved by
Florida 2012 is exploring potential sites and
plans for a stadium. The USF is a primary
wanted to place an ad offering women $2,000 to
donate their eggs.
The medical company was told of the ban in
joint letter from the newspaper's faculty
advisor and editor-in-chief. The letter also
stated that to run such ads would "spur
controversy that would ultimately be detrimental
to [the] small and struggling paper." (4/20/00)
In his lawsuit, Suarez said the FDLE
falsely accused his 1997 campaign of fraud.
He said the allegations of illegal conduct
eroded his professional standing, and lost
clients and potential partners in business
ventures. He claimed the FDLE's statements
costhim $100,000 ineamings.
Circuit Judge Thomas Wilson Jr. held that
the FDLE's press release was not libelous
and dismissed the suit.
Suarez said he plans to appeal Judge
Wilson's decision. (5/2/00)
BROWARD COUNTY- ABroward
county judge dismissed a lawsuit filed
by the Seminole Tribe that accused reporters
from the St. Petersburg Times
of interfering with the tribe's business
The suit FIRST
claimed that FIRST
two reporters AMENDMENT
from the paper
interfered by interviewing employees about
tribe business and asking them to reveal
confidential financial information. The tribe
requested an injunction to prevent the Times
from reporting on the tribe's activities.
Judge J. Leonard Fleet dismissed the suit
and refused to issue the injunction on the
grounds that both interfered with the free-
dom of the press. In his ruling, Judge Fleet
wrote that the restrictions the tribe called for
were on "the short road to despotism."
"This judge refuses to believe the proud
American Indian nation, no matter how
harshly it has been treated, would want to
take such journeyy" Fleet wrote. (4/29/00)
University newspaper bans fertility ads
ACCESS MEETINGS CONTINUED
Tax district violated Sunshine Law to discuss litigation
TAMPA PALMS The Tampa Palms
Florida's Open Meetings Law at least four
times in the years between 1996 and 1999,
according to Circuit Judge Manuel
Community activist Bob Doran sued the
tax district claiming that the group held four
closed-door meetings without a court
reporter or proper public notice. Peter
Winders, attorney for the tax district, said
the lawsuit was moot because the group has
since enacted stricter closed-meeting guide-
lines, and because the group has discussed
publicly every issue that had been
discussed behind closed doors. He said the
group discussed pending or threatened
litigationduring the meetings. (6/7/00)
State finds no evidence clerk violated Sunshine Law
The state attorney's office began an
investigation in December 1999 into County
Clerk Dorothy Wilken, focusing on whether
Wilken circumvented the law by privately
Paper's advertising suit dismissed
LIGHTHOUSE POINT Ajudge The new standards eliminated The Ledger
dismissed a paper's case against Pompano from the city's list of qualified newspapers.
Beachstemmingfrom The Ledger sued,
the city's choice of claiming that the city
newspapers in which ADVERTISING boycotted the news-
to advertise. CONTINUED paper's advertising as
The Pompano retaliation for the
Ledger, a weekly newspaper in Pompano content the paper published.
Beach, sued the city of Pompano Beach U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Seitz
after a 1996 meeting in which the city voted dismissed the case because there was
to allow city advertising in any newspaper no showing of discriminatory intent by the
that met the city's standards for advertising, city. (4/17/00)
FIRST AMENDMENT CONTINUED
Firing activist member not a violation
MIAMI A federal judge ruled that the
Miami -Dade County Commission did not
violate an advisory board member's free
speech rights by firing her for her position
in support of Cuban artists taking part in a
local music conference.
Peggi McKinley sued the county after
she was fired in September 1997 from her
volunteer position on the county's film,
television and print advisory board. The
county has a ban on doing business with
Cuba, and McKinley advocated keeping a
Cuban music symposium in Miami.
U.S. District Judge James King dismissed
McKinley's suit because the commission
had the right to fire her for disagreeing
publicly with its policies. King said that a
member appointed to an advisory board
implicitly agrees to represent the views of
those who appoint them. (3/26/00)
Miami can't enforce Cuban arts ban
MIAMI Miami-Dade may not force arts
groups to promise they have had no dealing
with the Cuban government or a Cuban
national as a condition for receiving arts
funding, according to a federal judge.
Miami-Dade enacted an ordinance four
years ago preventing arts groups from
receiving funding if they have had any
Cuban business dealings. Arts groups chal-
lenged the constitutionality of the ban in
April, claiming that itblocks them from pre-
senting Cuban artists. While the challenge is
being heard by the courts, U.S. District Judge
Frederico Moreno ruled that the county
cannot continue to bar groups with Cuban
connections from seeking grants. (5/6/00)
WEST PALM BEACH- A state
investigation found no evidence that a
West Palm Beach county clerk violated
Florida's Open Meetings Law.
2 The Brechner Report U July 2000
discussing who should control a court
Wilken was part of the Justice
Information Systems policy board, which
voted in November to move control of the
system to county commissioners. (5/25/00)
PALM BEACH The Palm Beach State
Attorney is investigating members of a
housing authority board for possible
violations of Florida's Open Meetings Law.
The state attorney's office seems to be
focusing on a Feb. 28 meeting in which the
Palm Beach County Housing Finance
Authority voted for the first time in 20 years
to put legal contracts out to a public bid.
Previously, the contracts for the
authority's attorneys were automatic-
The state attorney's office would not
comment on the investigation, but an
investigator requested the tapes and
minutes from the Feb. 28 meeting.
The authority is responsible for
distributing tax-free bonds to developers for
affordable housing projects. (6/1/00)
Copies of case opinions, attorney
general opinions, or !,.i, .ir,. ai re-
ported in any issue as on file may be
obtained upon request from the
Brechner Center for Freedom oflnfor-
mation, College of Journalism and
Communications, 3208 Weimer Hall,
University ofFlorida, Gainesville, FL
32611-8400, (352) 392-2273.
Five Lake Park officials win libel suit against residents
WEST PALM BEACH Ajury ruled that
letters and comments from two residents
regarding town officials were libelous.
The jury found that H. Don Saunders and
his wife Roselyn were liable for accusations
of bribery and extortion against the town's
manager, mayor, vice mayor, police chief
and fire chief. H. Don Saunders distributed
leaflets door-to-door listing the accusations.
Roselyn Saunders was liable for
communicating the accusations verbally.
The jury awarded $500 to each of the five
men libeled. The money will go to the town,
which is expected to pay more than $10,000
in legal fees forthe officials. (4/8/00)
Doctor fits definition of public figure, suit thrown out
WEST PALM BEACH A circuit judge
threw out a libel suit after determining the
plaintiff, a plastic surgeon, fit the definition
of a public figure.
Dr. Schuyler Metlis filed a libel suit
against radio talk show personality Randi
Rhodes after Rhodes criticized Metlis on air.
Circuit Judge Catherine Brunson
determined that Metlis was a public figure
because he agreed to be interviewed by The
Palm Beach Post for a feature article about
plastic surgery in 1995. Rhodes' on-air
comments were a result of the article.
Brunson's determination raised Metlis'
burden of proof in the case. Brunson held
that Metlis did not prove that Rhodes'
remarks were defamatory. (4/8/00)
Group complains that photos invade probationers' privacy
ST. PETERSBURG A non-profit group
is suing the Department of Corrections
claiming that posting probationers' photos
online is an invasion of privacy.
The plaintiff, Freedom for Life, helps
convicts re-enter society. The group claims
BARTOW A reporter does not have to
reveal his source to law enforcement
officials, according to a circuit judge.
Circuit Judge Cecelia Moore held that the
officials showed no compelling need for the
Law enforcement officers from the Polk
County Sheriff s office and two other law
enforcement agencies attempted to find a
The (Lakeland) Ledger reporter's source for
a document he used to write a story.
Officers also accused the reporter of
interfering with a murder investigation
during a dispute over police records.
Sam Cardinale wrote an article in March
1999 about a police officer's unsolved
shooting death 18 years ago.
In his article, Cardinale said that
informants told investigators the name of
the man responsible for the officer's death.
Law enforcement officials wanted to know
that its clients have lost jobs after employers
discover their photos on the departments
Web site. Since January, the Department of
Corrections has posted at
www.dc.state.fl.us/> photos, criminal
histories and home addresses of about
where Cardinale got the information about
the potential suspect.
Officials contended that he may have
used a report prepared by the Frostproof
Police Department and the Florida
Department of Law Enforcement for
prosecutors in 1996. The report summarized
the investigation. Only four copies of the
report were made and none is missing.
Law enforcement called for Cardinale to
reveal his source for the document is part of
an ongoing records dispute. In May 1999,
The Ledger sued the law enforcement
agencies to obtain access to records
pertaining to the investigation of the police
officer's death. The law enforcement
agencies filed a countersuit claiming that the
records are part of an ongoing investigation,
and therefore not open to the public. The
agencies wanted Cardinale to reveal his
source as a part of the countersuit. (5/16/00)
200,000 people who are in prison or on
probation. On the Web site, the Department
of Corrections explains that the information
is provided in the interests of public safety.
The site offers a search engine to find pris-
oners or probationers in specific locations or
who have been convicted of specific crimes.
The site not only shows photos, but gives
the convict's current location, verified
address and prison sentence history.
Freedom for Life is seeking class-action
status on behalf of thousands of
probationers inFlorida. (4/15/00)
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The Brechner Report u July 2000 3
Reporter does not have to reveal source
Experts offer tips for getting public records
Looking for a great story? Check out your local public records.
There's a wealth of information there and it's basically free for the
asking. Sometimes, though, public records custodians don't make it
easy to get these records. As director of the Brechner Center for
Freedom of Information, I get a
The lot of phone calls from
B ack P age journalists asking for help in
getting the records they don't
By Sandra F. Chance want you to have.
Here's some helpful
information from the state's leading experts and media attorneys,
presented at the recent Florida Bar's media law conference, on getting
these often elusive, very valuable records.
Know the government-in-the-sunshine laws and you rights under
them. Often, custodians will say the record you want is not a public
record. Your best response is to know the law and the exemptions. Get
a copy of Florida's Government- in- the-Sunshine Manual, written by
Florida's Attorney General's office. It's available from the Florida First
Amendment Foundation (http://floridafaf.org/). It's also available on-
line at http://legal.fim.edu/sunshine/index.html.
Be assertive, aggressive when necessary, and firm. Don't take the
first "no" for the final answer, counsels one reporter. Remind public
officials that you have a constitutional and statutory right to public
records and that public officials are obligated under those laws to
provide the records within a reasonable amount of time.
Be polite. You canbe firm, assertive and polite. One former reporter
insists that by getting to know the records custodians and treating
them like human beings, she got the records she needed when she
asked and often beat her competition to the story.
Make "practice" public records requests. This is especially helpful
if you're dealing with an agency not familiar with the public records
law, according to one media lawyer. By requesting a record that you
don't need under a deadline, you'll get the agency in the habit of
dealing with you. You can also discuss the process for dealing with
emergencies ahead of time.
Have a comprehensive form letterfor your request on yourword
processor and use it. The law does not require you to put your
request in writing, but if the custodian is being difficult, it is often help-
ful to start a paper trail. A sample letter is are available at the Brechner
Center's web site at http://www.jou.ufl.edu/brechner/foiareq.htm.
The burden is on the public agency to explain why it is denying
access to the public record. Make the agency explain its denial in writ-
ing. The public records law requires them to explain, "with particular-
ity," why they are denying the record. This information will be helpful
if you wind up having to sue them. Also, another media lawyer recom-
mends citing people as copied who might "influence" the agency to be
File a complaint with the your circuit's state attorney or request
mediationthroughtheAttorney General's office. Underthe law, the
state attorney has the power to investigate and prosecute both criminal
and noncriminal violations of the public records law. The informal
voluntary mediation program has been very effective.
Write a news story about the denial. If you can't get the record or
you're getting the runaround, write about it. Broadcasters should be
sure to take a cameraperson with you and get the denial on video. It
makes a great story.
Don't be dissuaded by exorbitant amount of additional fees. Often
these fees can be negotiated. Ask for a breakdown of the fees. Ask
about alternative formats, including computer downloads.
Be as specific as you can. When drafting your request, try not to be
too general. Although a general request is often necessary, an overly
broad request will give a custodian the perfect excuse for taking an
eternity to get your documents together.
Don't make the request unless you are prepared to make them give
up the documents. Lack of follow-throughbreeds contempt foryou,
your news organization and other journalists, according to one lawyer.
Finally, become conversant with new technology. Realize that more
and more records are being stored on computers. Learn everything you
can about computers or make friends with the techno wizards in your
organization. Also, call the agency's computer person and ask for that
person's assistance. In most cases, you're entitled to the database, not
just parts of it. But, you have to know what to ask for.
Sandra Chance is the director of the Brechner Center for Freedom
of Information at the University of Florida.