First Amendment advocates decry creep toward denying public information to Floridians

By: - March 24, 2021 6:13 pm

First Amendment of the US Constitution text. Getty Images

The Florida First Amendment Foundation is monitoring legislation pending before the Florida Legislature that would restrict public access to official records and force social media companies to display political and other posts even if they break their terms of service.

“This session, the First Amendment Foundation has noticed an effort to restrict access to court records. The legislative proposals vary — some bills automatically seal court records while other bills afford courts discretion to seal or expunge records,” the organization said in a report.

As an example, it cites two bills (HB 1193 and HB 1195) by Miami Republican Vance Aloupis that together would allow courts to seal eviction records if they prevail in disputes with landlords, settle them, or win dismissal. Each has cleared a first committee test.

“While these bills are well intentioned, the incidental harms of sealing records often outweigh the benefits,” the foundation said.

The legislation notes that Florida ranks third in the nation in homelessness and that “defendants in eviction proceedings are frequently blacklisted by landlords and are unable to rent affordable housing, regardless of whether a judgment was ever entered against the defendant,” the report says.

The foundation argues the bill still would protect the scuzzy landlords.

“A landlord may be unethically or illegally evicting tenants, but the court records would be hidden under this legislation. Landlords would be protected from any accountability of wrongdoing. Moreover, the purpose of the bill is undermined because a landlord could obtain eviction information from another source, such as asking the tenant’s prior landlord, and use that information to deny housing to a tenant,” the report says.

The report also cites HB 7013, the so-called “technology transparency” measure that would forbid social media sites from “deplatforming” political candidates on pain of fines of $100,000 per day for statewide candidates and $10,000 for other candidates. Any site that “that knowingly provides free advertising for a candidate” would have to report it as an in-kind contribution.

“By requiring social media platforms to carry users’ posts, even if such posts violate a company’s policies, companies will be forced to carry messages with which they disagree, compelling speech in violation of the First Amendment,” the foundation said.

Another bill on the watch list, SB 1488, by Republican Sen. Kelly Stargel, would exempt personal identifying information including home addresses, phone numbers, and employers of a range of public officials, including legislators and Cabinet members, their spouses, and children. It’s cleared its first committee vote.

“If this bill becomes law, the public will have no way of knowing whether legislators live in the districts they are elected to represent or whether a conflict of interest exists between officials and their spouses or adult children,” the report says.

Meanwhile, a pair of bills (SB 1972 and SB 1974) by Miami-Dade Democrat Jason Pizzo, would allow sealing of records of a domestic violence injunction if the complainant changes his or her mind or a court dismisses the matter. Both are about ready for floor debate.

“The exemption is intended to protect individuals who have been wrongfully accused of domestic violence; however, the court records could be sealed even if the petitioner voluntarily withdraws a petition and no finding against the respondent has been made,” the report says. “This exemption is overbroad.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.