Although every state in the United States of America have a Freedom of Information Act, every state approaches this series of laws a little bit differently. In this article, we will take a look at how the Florida Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) functions in Florida, and how you can make proper use of it.
History of the Florida FOIA
The state of Florida has one of the longest and most comprehensive Freedom of Information Act laws and regulations of almost any in the country. In 1909, the Florida state legislature passed their first Public Records Law under Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes. The primary thrust of this new regulation was to provide an easy path of access for any records that were made or received by a public agency in the state of Florida. As with even modern FOIA laws, there were a few exceptions to free and easy access to these records, generally when dealing with ongoing police investigations.
The Florida Sunshine Law, under Chapter 286 of the Florida Statutes, was enacted in 1975, and was designed to provide public information access to the meetings and results of meetings of the various bodies of Floridian government agencies. This law was amended in 1990 to allow for Public Meetings and Public Records to be added onto the list of accessible information.
Florida Open Meetings
As a direct result of the 1975 Florida Sunshine Law, all bodies of government in Florida are required to keep their meetings entirely open to the public. This is so that citizens of Florida can see how their governing personnel process, create, and to an extent, even uphold the laws. Recently, courts in Florida have extended the reach of the Sunshine Law so that any public board, commission, and regional agency under the control of the state legislature are also open to the public. These bodies can be composed of persons both elected and appointed.
Another highly important detail of the Florida Sunshine Law is that, even if governmental decision-making abilities are extended to private organizations, then even that private body must hold to the Open Meetings Law. However, Open Meeting Laws do not necessarily need to be followed if the meeting will focus on procedural, administrative matters that are discussed with attorneys.
Finally, all governmental and private bodies that must hold to the Open Meetings Law are also required to post notice, in a public and easy accessible place, information that details when and where meetings will take place. The minutes of all of these meetings are also to be made public information.
As outlined above, public meetings are protected and forced into transparency by the Open Meetings Law and the Florida Sunshine Law. Similarly, public records in Florida are protected to the point of allowing public access for almost all records.
Public records are defined by Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes as being, “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software or other material, regardless of the physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission.” It should be noted that this only applies to records that have been explicitly created by governmental entities, or private entities engaged in government business.
In 1995, the Florida Legislature had to amend their definition of public records to include both data processing software results and computer records, including email communications, instant message communication, and any other type of record created for or by governmental business.
Not all governmental records are freely available to the public, however. Although records can be exempted for a wide variety of reasons, it is the responsibility of the agency denying access to those records to explain why access has been denied. Currently, there are more than 550 records that have been exempted from the Public Records Law. Often, these involve medical records, autopsy photographs, and the details of ongoing police investigations.
The Federal Freedom of Information Act
In 1966, the Federal Freedom of Information Act was passed at the national level and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnston. The Federal FOIA specifically grants access to information and records from the Executive Branch of the government, and does not include records from the Congress, the judiciary branch, or even the President’s office.
Later, in 1976, the federal government passed it’s own Sunshine Act, which grants the citizenry access to attend the meetings of any federal Executive Branch commission. As with the Florida FOIA act, these meetings must be publicized ahead of time. Following the path set by the Florida government, the federal FOIA was again amended to include all electronic records, including instant messages, email, web sites, and any other record created and held on a computer.