Remote electronic access to case files should be just as extensive as access available at the courthouse, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said in comments filed Tuesday with the Supreme Court of Florida’s Committee on Privacy and Court Records.
The Reporters Committee strongly opposed the Florida committee’s proposal to classify some information found in court records as “not appropriate for public release,” or even exempt from public records. Instead, the Reporters Committee urged Florida to adopt a “broad but sensible” access policy such as those employed by the federal courts and by New York.
“[P]roviding co-extensive remote and paper access is the most faithful means of accommodating the public’s established First Amendment and common-law rights,” the Reporters Committee wrote, asserting that both legal and public-policy considerations justify remote access to judicial records.
The Reporters Committee pointed to several instances of computer-assisted journalism – including a January 2004 series by the Miami Herald – breaking stories of major public importance, thanks largely to electronic access to court records.
If Florida feels compelled to protect certain sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, the Reporters Committee suggested that it instruct litigants to avoid including such “personal data identifiers” in their filings, or else limit it to the last four digits. The court, however, should make it clear that the public can still request an unredacted version of the document – a request that may be granted when the public interest in disclosure outweighs the interest in privacy.
“A policy of broad access to court documents improves the quality of news coverage, enhances the public’s capacity to monitor the judicial system, and acts as a check against injustice and abuse,” the comments concluded.
The Florida Committee on Privacy and Court Records is scheduled to hear public testimony on Nov. 17 in Tallahassee.
The Reporters Committee is a voluntary, unincorporated association of reporters and editors working to defend the First Amendment rights and freedom of information interests of the news media. The Reporters Committee provides representation, guidance and research in First Amendment and Freedom of Information Act litigation.
The comments to the Florida Committee on Privacy and Court Records can be found at: https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20041103-floridaele.pdf