A new bill making its way through the Florida legislature has been described by one public records expert as “undoubtedly the worst bill I've seen in all my 25 plus years.”
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, further criticized HB 1021 as an attempt to severely weaken Florida’s public records laws.
On Wednesday the Florida House bill unanimously passed in the House Government Operations Subcommittee.
According to the Florida Sunshine Coalition the bill would “make the award of attorney’s fees discretionary even when a judge has made a finding that a public agency has wrongfully withheld public records from inspection.”
Currently if a government agency is found to be at fault that agency will be on the hook for the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.
“The attorney fee provision creates a level playing field for someone who can afford to pay for an attorney and those who cannot,” FSC said in a press release.
FSC believes that without a guaranteed penalty there is no incentive for the government to be transparent while also decreasing the number of challenges brought by citizens.
“Rather than reforming the public records law – a specious claim by the Florida League of Cities – these bills will essentially gut our right to access to government records,” FSC wrote.
Rand Hoch, founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, said his organization has filed almost 100 public records requests over the years.
“And we have had to file dozens to find out why action was not being taken on our requests for law and policy changes,” he said. “Requiring someone seeking public records to go to court to seek payment of attorneys fees further weakens the public records law, and may actually deter people from taking steps to learn what public entities are doing. We are fortunate that the Florida Sunshine Coalition and the First Amendment Foundation are being proactive in their opposition to this legislation.”
The Florida Society of News Editors also came out against HB 1021 sending a letter to Rep. Greg Steube, the bill’s author.
“There are good reasons to object to public money being spent on legal fees in lawsuits over public records. It is a mistake, however, to think it is cheaper or better public policy to weaken the law that provides successful plaintiffs with the ability to hold bureaucrats accountable,” wrote Douglas Ray, president of FSNE. “On behalf of journalists in small towns and big cities across Florida, I hope you will see that the urgent risk is not to shield bureaucrats who break the law but to protect citizens who successfully fight for its enforcement.”