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AUGUST 2019
SPOTLIGHT STORY

Too quick with the hook? People have a right to criticize the government at public meetings — yet policies restricting criticism won’t go away.

When an outspoken citizen steps to the microphone at a government meeting, the exchanges sometimes get combative.

At times, debate can escalate as far as arrest. Last January, a Louisiana schoolteacher who continued an argument with the school board chair after her speaking time expired was dragged from the meeting in handcuffs, a scene replayed 3 million times on YouTube.

To avoid contentious comment periods, boards and commissions throughout the country have rigidly limited what speakers can say. But these regulations are questionably constitutional. Attempts to enforce civility when citizens address their elected officials regularly end up in court.

The First Amendment strongly protects the right to talk back — even impolitely — to government officials, and regulations on the content of speakers’ remarks often flunk the test of constitutionality.

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BRECHNER BREAKTHROUGH 
Veteran Washington Post journalist Miranda Spivack is joining UF’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information on a year-long fellowship to work with journalism students on investigative reporting projects spotlighting issues of government secrecy.
 
Spivack began work Aug. 1 in a newly created fellowship position that also will include creating research papers for the UF-based National Freedom of Information Coalition about issues affecting public access to government records.

Spivack was recognized with the 2017 Sunshine Award from the Society for Professional Journalists for her series, “State Secrets,” examining how government agencies manipulate fees, delays and exemptions to deny the public access to information.  

Read more...
FLORIDA FOCUS

FDLE investigation spotlights Florida law that criminalizes releasing confidential employee complaints

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a member of the State Cabinet, is the subject of an inquiry by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement ("FDLE") after a complaint accused Patronis' office of illegally releasing a sexual harassment complaint against an employee of the CFO's office. 

The FDLE is looking into how and why an employee's complaint, which was filed against the state's top banking regulator, Ronald Rubin, was disseminated online even though the harassment case was still under investigation. (Rubin was just removed from his state job by a vote of Florida's governor and Cabinet, a decision his lawyer has challenged as a politically motivated smear.)

Willfully violating Florida's open-records law is punishable by up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. Although the law is enforced mostly against people who under-disclose information that the law makes public, it is possible to also bring charges for releasing documents that the law designates as "confidential."

Source: Tampa Bay Times

ACCESS ALL-STAR

"When records are refused, ask for the legal reasons for denial. Often, as in this case, they are specious, and give more impetus to push for the information." 


--Dan Kane, investigative reporter, the Raleigh News & Observer, to the Poynter Institute's Kristen Hare, describing a year-long investigation into self-dealing by executives of a development finance program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Records unearthed by Kane exposed conflicts of interest enabling companies with business ties to the UNC program's director to obtain subsidized financing for their construction projects.
EXPERT COMMENTARY

New information access standards provide a beacon of openness to guide science journalists and public information officers


By Gabriel Popkin, freelance science journalist, Washington, D.C. 

Federal agencies are supposed to work for the public. But to many journalists, they increasingly resemble private corporations: secretive, obstructive, obsessed with branding and message control. Surveys have confirmed what journalists report anecdotally: Agencies that once freely shared information have tightened up, and fewer and fewer agencies allow their scientists to speak directly to the press. Such policies can delay or weaken reporters’ stories, limit the public’s ability to know what their tax dollars are paying for and ultimately lead to a less informed and poorer society.

Earlier this year, the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the nation’s largest organization of science journalists and communicators, took a stand against this trend, by publishing an unprecedented and groundbreaking set of Information Access Standards

The standards establish that scientists and other sources who work for the government should be able to speak to the press about their work and expertise without restriction. They also establish that federal public information officers (PIOs) have a valuable role to play in providing information to the public, but should not stand in the way of journalists’ reporting. Lastly, the standards call on federal agencies to produce and publicize policies about how they will handle media inquiries, and, more importantly, to abide by those policies.

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If you would like to become a contributor, please send an email to brechnerreport@jou.ufl.edu with your idea!
CRUNCH THIS

Watching the watchmen


New Orleans is jumping aboard the "open data" movement with a municipal dashboard that gives the public searchable access to some high-value datasets, including citizen complaints against police. The city's open-data portal allows users to see (and even create custom charts and visualizations about) the type of complants police are fielding, how long it takes to resolve them, who's filing them (by race, age and gender) and with what outcome.
As with all government-supplied data, journalists should always warily "trust but verify." Try out the search tool here
IN THE COURTS
Campus police records should be accessible to the public, regardless of who signs the officers' paychecks, the Brechner Center argues in a brief filed with the Utah Supreme Court.

The Center put together a coalition of media and open-government organizations to support the Salt Lake Tribune in its request for records from the police Department at Brigham Young University, which -- though it exercises state arrest powers -- has insisted that it is a private entity exempt from Utah's Government Records Management Act. 


The Utah legislature resolved the issue in 2019 by passing a law that makes private colleges release their police records. But BYU argues that the law does not apply retroactively and is withholding records of past cases.

Read the brief here...
WHAT WE'RE WRITING

A crucial case for whistlerblowers' rights


In a column for CNN Business, the Brechner Center's Frank LoMonte explains why journalists, media lawyers and anyone concerned with the safety of private-sector whistleblowers should be following the case of a Maine hospital that's awaiting a ruling at the National Labor Relations Board. If the NLRB sides with the hospital, employees everywhere could lose previously well-established legal rights that protect their ability to speak freely to the press and public about workplace issues without fear of retaliation.
Read the column here.
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