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Proposed State Laws Worry Transparency Advocates

Roberto Roldan
WUSF Public Media
Tim Nickens of the First Amendment Foundation spoke at a Tampa community forum on Friday about protecting public records.

Public records advocates are opposing a number of bills that will be considered by the Florida legislature this year.

A bill that, if passed, would stop government officials from releasing any video, audio or photos of a person's death is being opposed by the First Amendment Foundation. The proposed bill is an expansion of an existing law that prohibits the release of any media showing the death of a police officer.

Tim Nickens is a board member of the First Amendment Foundation and the editor of editorials for the Tampa Bay Times. At a community forum in Tampa on Friday morning, Nickens said the proposed bill would keep the public from better understanding controversial deaths involving police.

"Those videos of deaths involving other people have sparked community outrage, serious reforms and another look at criminal charges," he said.

Any photo, audio or video recordings taken before or after a person's death is also prohibited by the proposed legislation. Nickens pointed to the case of Trayvon Martin as an example of why the bill is bad for public discourse.

A 9-1-1 call and video of Martin prior to his death sparked protests and discussions about race. 

"It's understandable that some folks don't want these kinds of media be public, because they are disturbing," Nickens said. "But that's exactly why they need to be seen."

The First Amendment Foundation's opposition to a bill that would automatically seal arrest records if the arrest did not result in a conviction drew hostile responses from the audience.

Beth Eriksen-Shoup of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Tampa Bay told Nickens that the current law penalizes those who are falsely arrested, particularly those who can not afford to have their records expunged.

Nickens responded that arrest records are necessary for employers and for journalists to track if certain people are being falsely arrested disproportionately.

"If we can't get access to those records then we can't demonstrate that prosecutors had misconduct or that police railroaded someone," Nickens said.

The First Amendment Foundation has also expressed concern about bills that it says would increase secrecy around lawsuits filed against public agencies and do away with public access to already limited voter registration information.

The Florida legislature begins its 2018 session on Jan. 9. 

Roberto Roldan is a senior at the University of South Florida pursuing a degree in mass communications and a minor in international studies.
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