Florida Bill Limiting Access to 911 Calls Moves Forward
Posted in Public Records

A committee of the Florida legislature this week approved on a party-line vote a bill that would require a court order to access 911 call recordings.  This development follows on the heels of efforts in several other states to curtail access to 911 calls under state sunshine laws, a trend on which we previously reported.

On Wednesday, the Government Affairs Policy Committee of the Florida House of Representatives approved by an 8-5 vote proposed committee bill 10-03a, with all Republicans on the committee voting for it and all Democrats voting against.  The bill would exempt "Any recording of a request for emergency services or report of an emergency using an emergency communications E911 system" from the public disclosure requirements of Florida's public records laws, including Section 119.07(1) and Section 24(a) of Article I of the Florida State Constitution.  A 911 recording could be released pursuant to a court order finding good cause for disclosure.  Upon request, a person could obtain a transcript of a 911 call, after 60 days and with all personal identifying information redacted.

The Miami Herald has reported that the 911 bill is a top priority of the Speaker of the Florida House, Larry Cretul, who took the unusual step of stacking the Government Affairs Policy Committee meeting Wednesday with an extra Republican to ensure passage.  A powerful ally of Speaker Cretul has urged Cretul to secure passage of such a law after he lost his son and subsequently heard a recording of the 911 call on a news broadcast.

The Florida bill therefore follows a pattern we noted in other states where similar bills are under consideration -- anecdotal evidence of the broadcast of wrenching 911 calls is cited in support of sweeping measures that would eliminate access to 911 recordings in most cases.  These bills appear driven more by a misguided desire to exercise editorial control over the use of 911 recordings by news organizations than by any genuine problem associated with access itself.  In fact, the Florida bill recites as a policy basis the notion that "there are those persons, who, for personal, private gain or for business purposes, would seek to capitalize on individuals in their time of need."

This bill and others like it underscore a prominent person upset with the use of a public record in a particular circumstance can succeed in having legislative bodies consider wholesale changes to everyone's access to public records.  This is a troubling trend.

The Florida bill faces an uncertain fate, as it is opposed by Florida Democrats and Governor Crist, and it must pass by a supermajority vote.  We will continue to follow the progress of this bill.

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