(AP) — Florida has long been known for sunshine -- not only the warm rays that brighten its beaches but also the light of public scrutiny afforded by some of the nation's strongest meetings and records laws.
Although years of rollbacks have gradually clouded the impact, advocates are ringing alarms that this year presents the greatest threat to transparency yet in the state that coined the name “Sunshine Law” for its open-government rules.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, weighing a presidential bid, is pursuing a home-state agenda that could make it harder for people to learn what public officials are doing or to speak out against them. In an unprecedented move for the Sunshine State, DeSantis has claimed an executive right to keep key government records secret. He's also seeking to weaken a nearly 60-year-old national legal precedent protecting journalists and others who publish critical comments about public figures.
Florida's Republican-led Legislature appears eager to carry out his vision. As their annual session began last week, lawmakers filed dozens of bills that would add to the state's lengthy list of open-government exceptions.
“The state of sunshine is in peril,” warned Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, who has been tracking the state's public access laws for three decades.
DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential bid following the session, has thrilled conservative activists nationwide by leaning into fights against the GOP's perceived political adversaries: public health officials, so-called “woke” leaders in business and public education — and the press.
Former President Donald Trump, a potential rival and fellow Floridian, also is well-known for lambasting the press — describing the U.S. media as “the enemy of the people.” Such criticism often plays well within the modern-day Republican Party, where mainstream media are perceived to side with the interests of Democrats and liberals.
But it runs contrary to Florida's historic reputation as a place where reporters — and curious members of the public — can unearth government data and documents that shed light on the decisions made by elected officials.
Florida's law making government records open to public inspection dates to 1909, long before similar measures emerged in many other states. It added a Sunshine Law requiring public meetings in 1967. Then, in 1992, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a public right to access records and meetings. A decade later, as lawmakers were adding exemptions, voters approved another a constitutional amendment making it harder for legislators to approve future exceptions.
Florida newspapers launched the first “Sunshine Sunday” in 2002 to highlight the importance of public access to government information. That one-day event has since grown to an annual Sunshine Week observed nationally by media and First Amendment advocates.
As this year's Sunshine Week began Sunday, lawmakers in state capitols were pursuing a mixture of proposals — some excluding more government records from public inspection; others increasing the ability of people to keep an eye on their government. But nowhere, perhaps, have Sunshine Week issues garnered as much attention as in Florida — due largely to DeSantis' powerful platform to voice his complaints about the media.
Last month, DeSantis hosted a livestreamed “panel discussion on defamation” while attempting to build support for his plan to make it easier to bring defamation lawsuits against the media or people who post things on the internet about public officials and employees.
“You smear somebody, it’s false, and you didn’t do your homework, you’re going to have to be held accountable for that,” DeSantis said while concluding the event. “Hopefully, you’ll see more and more of that across the country.”
DeSantis is seeking to undercut a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision that shielded news outlets from libel judgments unless proven that they were published with “actual malice” — knowing that something was false or acting with “reckless disregard” to whether it was true. Florida legislation to carry out DeSantis' plan would make it unnecessary to prove “actual malice” when the allegedly defamatory statements don’t relate to the reason why someone is a public figure.