Volume 29, Number 9 E A monthly report of mass media law in Florida
Published by The Brechner Center for Freedom ofI,, .. .,'. College ofJournalism and Communications U University ofFlorida
Judges maintain secret manual of court policies
MIAMI Federal judges in the U.S. and attorneys in the southern district.
District Court for the Southern District of The policy manual came to light after it
Florida are following a set was referred to in orders
of procedures outlined in a C O T TS writtenby Chief Judge
secret policy manual that v William J. ZlochandU.S.
provides directives for case District Judge K. Michael
assignment. Moore. Both orders took actions that
These non-public rules are maintained sidestepped the Local Rules for the
in addition to the court's published random assignment of cases to judges.
Local Rules, which are used by judges The orders transferred 21 criminal
PORT RICHEY- City police officers
found nothing illegal after investigating
a complaint by Port Richey resident John
King, who accused Vice Mayor Bill
Bennett and other city officials of
violating the state's Sunshine Laws
ACCESS gathering held
at a local
MEETINGS Steak 'n Shake
after a city
The complaint asserted that Bennett,
councilmanFred Miller and former
Mayor Eloise Taylor were all present and
discussed government business in
violation of the state's Sunshine Law.
The Sunshine Law prohibits
government officials from meeting
privately to discuss public business, but
it does allow social gatherings.
Investigators determined that the
three officials talked about numerous
subjects, including the weather and
However, the investigation concluded
that no city business was discussed at
the dinner gathering, and therefore, the
officials were not in violation of the
LAKE WORTH- Former mayor Ron
Exline filed a lawsuit against city officials
claiming they violated the Sunshine Law
while selling city properties.
Exline asked a judge to void the
transactions, in which the city sold a
building and a parking lot. If the
transactions were nullified, city residents
would vote on whether to allow the city
to re-sell the properties.
cases from Senior U.S. District Judge James
Lawrence King to Judge Moore in early
May. The unexplained transfer occurred
outside the court's usual system.
Neither federal prosecutors or public
defenders were aware of the policy manual
before it came to light. However, Clerk of
Court Clarence Maddox confirmed the
policy manual's existence for Miami Daily
Business Review reporter Dan Christensen.
The suit alleges that City Manager
Paul Boyer held a meeting in his office to
draft an order requiring city officials to
negotiate a sale of the building after city
commissioners had earlier decided not to
sell the property.
Florida's Sunshine Law requires that
meetings between two or more elected or
appointed officials be open to the
public. Minutes also must be taken.
Federal officials argue against
disclosing hurricane records
FORT MYERS Attorneys for the the 2004 hurricanes.
federal government are arguing that The federal government has filed a
records maintained by the Federal motion for summary judgment, requesting
Emergency Management that U.S. District Court Judge
Agency are not of interest AC C E SS John. E. Steele rule in its favor.
to members of the public. 3 Such a ruling would allow the
This comes in response RECORDS hurricane records to remain
to a lawsuit by three undisclosed.
Gannett newspapers, The The newspapers have argued
FortMyers News-Press, Florida Today the information is of public interest and
and the Pensacola News-Journal, seeking citizens have a right to learn how the
access to the records. government is spending its money.
The newspapers argued that the Additionally, they believe the files should
records contain information related to be released in accordance with the federal
disaster assistance given in response to Freedom of Information Act.
Former mayor sues city officials
over Sunshine Law violations
ACCESS RECORDS CONTINUED
NYC officials release documents detailing Sept. 11
NEW YORK CITY City officials The documents include about 15 Earlier this year, the state's highest court
have released thousands of documents hours of audio recordings and more than ruled that some, but not all, of the records
maintained by the fire department 12,000 pages of transcribed firefighter should be made public.
regarding the September 1 Ith terrorist testimony taken after the event. Records released previously suggest that
attacks after a three-year court battle. The newspaper sued under the federal some of the more than 340 firefighter
The New York Times filed the lawsuit, Freedom of Information Act after the city casualties could have been prevented with
which was supported by the relatives of refused to disclose the records it better communication among emergency
fallenfirefighters. maintained as a part of its investigation, services groups.
Report concludes costs of secrecy skyrocketing
WASHINGTON- The federal Some of the increase in cost can likely The report attributes part of the increase
government classified more than 15.5 be attributed to the ability of federal in secrecy classifications to the increased
million documents during the last year, agency heads to classify information number of officials who have the power to
according to a report issued by the under vague labels such as siinsM~ c classify documents.
federal Information Security Oversight security information." Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, President
Office. "I've seen information that was George W. Bush has given classification
The increasing secrecy, driven by classified that I've also seen published in power to the heads of the Environmental
fears of terrorism after the September third-grade textbooks," said J. William Protection Agency, the Department of
2001 attacks, cost taxpayers an Leonard, who heads the Information Agriculture and the Department of Health
estimated $7.2 billion last year. Security Oversight Office. and Human Services.
Legislation would reinstate Fairness Doctrine
WASHINGTON -U. S. Rep. Maurice
Hinchey (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill that
would require broadcasters to devote air
time to all sides of controversial issues.
The legislation, which would restore
the Fairness Doctrine as it was once
called, is pending in the House of
Hinchey's bill, called the Media
Ownership Reform Act of 2005, mandates
that broadcast licensees provide
Copies of case opinions, Florida
Attorney General opinions, or
!,.A; Jha. reported in any issue as
"on file may be obtained upon
request from the Brechner Center for
Freedom of Information, College of
Journalism and Communications,
3208 Weimer Hall, P.O. Box 118400,
University ofFlorida, Gainesville,
FL 32611-8400, (352) 392-2273.
reasonable time to allow for conflicting
perspectives to discuss issues of public
In 1987, the Federal Communications
Commission repealed the Fairness
Doctrine, which was initially intended to
promote the broadcasting of diverse
views. Opponents of the policy argued
that it restricted freedom of expression and
led to less discussion of public issues.
Another provision in the bill seeks to
limit the number of stations that a media
entity can own in a single market.
Hinchey sponsored similar legislation in
2004, but that bill never made it out of
Judge rules Florida high school's
distribution policy unconstitutional
FORT MYERS A Lee County high
school student plans to appeal a federal
court decision denying her claim that the
Lee County School Board violated her
First Amendment rights by refusing to
allow her to distribute anti-abortion
The court ruled against Michelle
Heinkel, who was denied permission in
April 2003 to circulate the pamphlets in
her middle school.
However, the federal court noted in its
opinion that the school board policy used to
prevent her pamphleteering was
unconstitutional because of a requirement
that "no advertisement shall include
political, religious or organizational
Because the court found that the nature
of the literature could cause disruption, it
ruled against Heinkel's First Amendment
Her attorney plans to appeal to the U.S.
Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
The Brechner Report September 2005
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
Gonzales agrees to re-examine
Ashcroft memorandum policy
General Alberto Gonzales has
announced that he will reconsider the
Department of Justice's position on
the release of documents under the
federal Freedom of Information Act.
Gonzales, who took office under a
policy established by former Attorney
General John Ashcroft, promised the
Associated Press that he would "go
back and look at it."
Under the policy established by
Ashcroft, government record-keepers
are encouraged to err on the side of
withholding information instead of
This is contrary to the previous
policy, which had been established by
Clinton Administration Attorney
General Janet Reno.
The Reno policy was to release any
records not subject to mandatory FOIA
exemptions unless there was a specific
and substantial harm that would result
from their release.
The policy serves to guide
government records custodians as they
make decisions about whether to
disclose information being requested by
the public under the FOIA.
Prosecutors interrogate fired
columnist over telephone call
MIAMI Prosecutors are Initially, Miami Herald Publisher
investigating the conduct of a former Jesus Diaz Jr. said he would not
Miami Herald columnist who was fired relinquish the recording and had said he
after he recorded a telephone will go to court to fight a subpoena for
conversation with a local politician who the tape.
shot himself in the newspaper's lobby. However, Diaz eventually released the
An attorney for the Miami-Dade State tape because he said DeFede had already
Attorney's Office and another law turned his notes over to investigators.
enforcement official were allowed to DeFede made the tape without Teele's
listen to the tape, which was made by permission, which may be a violation of
columnist Jim DeFede shortly before the state's criminal laws. He was fired
Arthur Teele died. after he told his editor of the recording.
AP uses records
for story about
Press relied on the federal Freedom of
Information Act to request more than
16,000 complaints of women who
reported symptoms in connections with
the use of Ortho Evra.
The federal law mandates that
records kept by many of the federal
government agencies be open to
inspection by the public if they are not
subject to one of the FOIA exemptions.
The news organization filed a public
records request with the Food and
Drug Administration to obtain federal
drug safety reports about the birth
The reports indicated at least 23
deaths that the news organization had
reviewed by medical practitioners and
believed may be related to the birth
The AP also used the records to
report that women who were using the
patch were three times more likely to
suffer strokes and blood clots than
those women who took birth control
As a result of the investigation, the
families of several deceased women
have filed suits against patch
manufacturer Ortho McNeil, claiming
the drug maker knew of the possible
symptoms before the patch went on the
BACK PAGE CONTINUED
continuedfrom page 4
To a board of trustees that thinks it is
being voluntarily open to the public, it
follows logically that it will also think it
has the discretion to be closed, when it
thinks that is what is best for the public.
Similarly, ifboard members think they are
voluntarily opening their meetings, it
would never occur to them that they are
prohibited by law from talking privately
on the telephone or over breakfast about
the agenda items before the meeting
begins. Nobody would naturally comply
with the full requirements of the
Sunshine Law unless they were being
advised clearly that it would be a crime
for them to violate the law.
Case in point: The Palm Beach Post
quoted Rick Schuster, executive director of
the PalmBeach Community College
Foundation, as saying the Sunshine Law
"could have a chilling effect on our work
and on the willingness of people to serve ..
Where do you draw the line on this? If I
cannot have lunch with two of my board
members without giving public notice, yes, I
have a problem. That totally disrupts the
flow of business."
Not to cast aspersions on the fine people
who volunteer to serve on DSOs, but
someone ought to explain their legal
obligations to them. It's only fair.
The Brechner Report September 2005
R E P ) R T
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School foundations to begin year in sunshine
A funny thing happened when the Northwest Florida
Daily News started looking into its local community
The newspaper unexpectedly opened up a can of
At Okaloosa-Walton College, the trustees told the
Daily News they went "full fledge" in the direction of
openness. Nonetheless, they maintained, their board of
trustees was not actually covered by the Government-in- Rob
the-Sunshine Law, Section 286.011 of Florida Statutes.
The Daily News kept pressing the "technical" legal question
until local State Rep. Ray Sansom lodged a request for an
Attorney General's Opinion ("AGO") on whether the boards of
trustees of community college foundations are, in fact, required
to follow the Sunshine Law.
The The answer: Yes.
Back Page Technically.
Published on April 20,2005,
By Robert Rivas Attorney General Charlie Crist's
opinion held that community
college "direct support organizations" are within the coverage of
the Sunshine Law. These DSOs are chartered as non-profit
corporations, just as other, truly private foundations are, but
they are required by law to solicit, invest and spend money to
support their respective community colleges. Every aspect of
their operations is dictated by the statute.
The AGO clearly implies that all state DSOs are equally
covered by the Sunshine Law. Not only is there at least one DSO
for each community college and university, but DSOs have been
sprouting all over state government, soliciting private
contributions to support crime victims, the moviemaking
industry, local public schools and the Public Guardianship
Program, to name but a few. The "booster clubs" of university
athletic programs are also DSOs. (There is even a DSO for the
state prison system, but it does not seem likely a "major donor"
would want the prison library named after him.)
Naturally solicitous of public goodwill, these
organizations are quick to be quoted as saying they are
open. Yet over the years, they have universally claimed
that their openness is a voluntary gesture, not one
compelled by the requirements of the Sunshine Law.
The AGO blows away this smokescreen, holding that
an organization that is created by the government and
totally controlled by the government to accomplish the
Rivas government's purposes is not a private organization at
all. An entity under the "dominion and control" of the
Legislature is governed by the Sunshine Law unless the
Legislature declares that the DSOs are exempt from the Sunshine
The community college DSOs argued that the Legislature did
in fact create an exemption for them. There is an exemption from
the Public Records Law that allows the DSOs to keep
confidential any documents revealing their donors' identities.
This, they argued, implied an exemption from the Sunshine Law's
requirement of open meetings. Debunking this argument, the
AGO noted that the Public Records Law itself states that an
exemption from disclosure of documents under the Public
Records Law does not imply an exemption from open meetings
under the Sunshine Law. These two laws are distinct.
By now the devil's advocate is asking, if the DSOs are really
as open as they say they are, will the AGO make a difference?
Yes. Realistically, there is a big difference between a DSO that is
holding itself out as voluntarily open to promote public goodwill,
and a DSO that recognizes that it is required to abide by the
Sunshine Law, subject to sanctions. A decision made in
violation of the Sunshine Law can be declared void.
In the wake of the AGO, countless DSO decisions are now
subject to challenge. And public officials who knowingly violate
the Sunshine Law can be criminally prosecuted.
continued on page 3
Robert Rivas currently serves as a contract partner for
Sachs Sax Klein in Tallahassee and practices First Amendment
law. He has worked as an editor for The Palm Beach Post.