Law enforcement, security issues overshadow FOI laws

Freedom of Information | Feature | October 3, 2001

    NMU         FLORIDA         Freedom of Information    

Without an exemption, record holders must disclose the records they keep, but the department was "not exerting any exemption," McElroy said.

He would not say who was responsible for making the final decision to refuse disclosure and did not know when the records would be released.

The FBI grounded crop dusters for two days in September while the FBI examined records of American flight schools.

The Department of Motor Vehicles placed a temporary 24-hour ban on the accessibility of driver's license records on Sept. 19 at the request of law enforcement agencies.

During that time, the department installed a program to redact only the addresses and social security numbers of foreign nationals from about 12 Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian countries, who had obtained licenses during a certain period. It took the measure to hinder media access to those persons as law enforcement agencies conducted investigations, said Robert Sanchez, spokesman for the department.

The records would be exempt if they arose out of criminal investigations but are not exempt if they existed prior to the criminal investigations as the case here, said Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.

The courts should make the determination that records would not be disclosed after weighing the risk to security against the importance of open government, Petersen said, adding that the agencies instead just took the access away with no legal authority for their decision.

"They think that they can just hijack civil liberties in the name of law enforcement," Petersen said.

Even the state legislature took action, creating two new committees to deal with issues of state security. The meetings would be open to the public, but could potentially be closed "to protect for the security of our state," said Kim Stone, communications director for House Speaker Tom Sweeney.

The legislature will meet in mid-October for an emergency session to discuss the recent decline in the tourism industry and the state's economy. The legislature could potentially pass more security legislation to hamper the state's open government laws.

"My fear is that . . . they will do another 'Earnhardt,' create an exemption, [and then] make it retroactive," said Petersen, referring to how the state legislature this year restricted access to autopsy photos following the death of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt.

-- MM

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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