The public’s right to know is threatened in the Florida Legislature

March 13, 2019 7:00 am

Sunshine Week cartoon by Jake Fuller

Sometimes I wonder if the Florida Legislature lives to please the National Rifle Association.

One potential gift for the NRA and its gun toting supporters in this year’s legislative session includes a little bill that would make photographs, video or audio recordings that depict the scene of a mass killing exempt from the public records law. It has sparked objections from First Amendment advocates and news organizations that have used videos and audio recordings to chronicle the response to shootings in several instances.

Of course you’ll never find the NRA’s fingerprints on the bill. And the NRA’s lobbyist, Marion Hammer, says she didn’t produce the bill and has merely put it on her “tracking list.’’

“We have no position on it,’’ Hammer said in an email.

Legislators say Hammer has not contacted them, but they all know such crime scenes produce more and more support for gun control.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who is sponsoring the Senate version along with Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said he believes the bill will be amended from its current form to improve access to information. He is working with the First Amendment Foundation to make the bill less restrictive.

“You can’t trust government to police itself,’’ Lee added.

No murder scene is nice to see.  And no reporter relishes the chance to have a look, but many of us have used crime scene photos to question whether law enforcement did its job.

Lee said Senate President Bill Galvano asked him to sponsor the bill after Galvano and others toured the scene of the Parkland school shooting last year.

Galvano said he was responding to a Commission created after the Parkland school shooting that recommended limiting access to graphic videos and photos to protect the families of victims.  Galvano said he has put the brakes on the bill to regroup and rethink the language in it because he wants to be sure there is adequate information available to review the acts of law enforcement and other officials.

“It’s necessary oversight,’’ Galvano added.

House Sponsor James Grant, R-Tampa, said recently that the bill is needed to prevent images of violence from encouraging similar crimes and to protect the families of victims from seeing the deaths of loved ones repeatedly used on social media.

Senate Bill 186 and its companion, House Bill 7017 would make all photos, video and audio recordings that depict the killing of a victim of mass violence exempt from public disclosure.

If the bills pass as written, Floridians would have to wage a costly court battle in order to see the kind of scene that might make a voter support gun control. And no news organization would be able to use those records to analyze what happened.  The bill makes other changes which could seriously restrict access to information about the crime. A spouse or family member could request copies of photos, but if they shared them with others, they could be convicted of a felony.

We need look no further than the Parkland High School murders a year ago and the murder of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 to understand why such secrecy is a bad idea. Thanks should go to the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel and the costly legal fight it waged to gain access to video and audio recordings during the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  The result was a compelling analysis of an unprepared and overwhelmed school district and law enforcement community when faced with one 17-year-old shooter who had armed himself with an AR-15.  The newspaper compiled its report from interviews, witness statements, police reports, body camera footage, 911 recordings and police radio transmissions.

“Access to the records are absolutely critical to the public’s understanding of what happened at Pulse and Parkland,’’ Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said in a letter to lawmakers.

Without public access to footage and other materials, we might never have seen the sheriff’s deputies hiding behind trees while children were being shot. We might not have discovered the incredibly disorganized response on a school campus where security was entrusted to unarmed coaches who were slow to respond to the threat even after one of them watched the shooter (who had previously been identified as a young man likely to shoot up the school) enter the campus carrying a canvas gun bag.

The shooter had moved across three floors of a classroom building, injuring 17 and killing 17, dropped his weapon in a stairwell and left the building to walk to a nearby Walmart before any police officers rushed into the building.  Inadequate radio communications between the various police agencies seriously hampered the response, and only police officers from Coral Springs ran toward the gunfire. And it slowed the response of rescuers who were blocked from entering the building to save people who lay dying.

The school resource officer on duty that day hid behind buildings and cautioned arriving law enforcement officers to establish a perimeter and keep away from the building where shots were being fired.

It was sheer chaos.  Despite the number of school shootings and plans developed by many law enforcement agencies for dealing with a shooter on campus, most failed to react in a timely fashion, inadvertently leaving behind a textbook example of how not to react to a school shooter.

The reports also uncovered heroism on the part of a number of teachers, coaches and other staff at the school who saved many students and prevented even more death. Records reviewed by the Sun Sentinel also were able to point out situations where school officials took steps that saved lives. Some teachers covered the doors of their classrooms, moved students into areas away from the doors and locked the killer out.  Other school officials sacrificed their own lives as they attempted to stop the shooter.

We know all of this because South Florida news organizations spent the time and money fighting to obtain access to the records. Those records would be sealed from public view if pending legislation is approved.  The bills appear to be on a fast track. Last week the Senate Rules Committee approved the bill and placed on the senate calendar for action

Passage could mean that no news organization or independent study could take a good look at exactly what happened to cause the mass killing or determine whether law enforcement officers and school officials what they were supposed to do.

It would also mean that no Floridian would ever see the kind of scene that might make a voter turn against those who support the proliferation of guns like the AR-15 that has been used to massacre so many. Much of what has been disclosed by newspapers has already sparked substantial change. Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended the Broward County Sheriff from office and called for the dismissal of the county school superintendent. Schools around the country have learned more about how to deal with  threats of violence.

As hard as it is to view the aftermath of mass violence, we need to preserve the right to do so. You never know when it might save lives.

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.