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By TAMMIE BARFIELD
Access to information about the workings of the government is critical to a functioning democracy.
Wakulla County’s chapter of the League of Women Voters recently hosted a public records forum at the library where Florida First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen was the presenter. It was apparent to anyone who attended that the public’s right to access government records is her passion. Petersen and the First Amendment Foundation are dedicated to fighting for our first amendment rights.
Petersen said, “The right to access government records is an inalienable right established by our founding fathers,” and that James Madison is the “father of freedom of information.”
Florida sets the standards for open government establishing its open meetings law in 1967, before most states enacted sunshine laws. The right to access records has been a central part of our government with the constitutional right to open government law passed in 1992.
Petersen said the First Amendment Foundation receives a lot of complaints about the legislature. There are 150 to 160 bills introduced each year that create exemptions to the public records law and the public’s right of access. Petersen and the foundation screen every exemption request that comes through each legislative session. There are between eight and 10 new exemptions passed each year.
Petersen is the chief lobbyist on behalf of the citizens of Florida. I was told by a friend and former First Amendment Foundation board member that during Governor Crist’s term in office, any time anyone introduced legislation or asked for an exemption to the public records law, the governor was known to tell them to first go check with Barbara to make sure it would be okay.
The Florida First Amendment Foundation is a highly visible and accessible source of authoritative information, expertise, and assistance to the public and news media. It was founded as a non-profit organization in 1984 by The Florida Press Association, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Florida Association of Broadcasters, to ensure that public commitment and progress in the areas of free speech, free press, and open government do not become checked and diluted during Florida’s changing times.
If you have questions about requesting public records or obtaining access to public information, call Barbara at (850) 222-3518 or visit the website: www.floridafaf.org.
Tammie Barfield is general manager of The Wakulla News and serves on the Florida Press Association Board.