Journalists are not the only ones who look to public documents to get answers. As taxpayers, it is the fundamental right to have access to public records. There are several reasons why people should care about their rights to public records.
Lee County Clerk of Court's Linda Doggett says, "Let’s say you’re picking a doctor or someone to do work on your house, somewhere you’re going to spend a lot of money or, put your life in somebody’s hands. You could do a quick search on court records to see if there are lawsuits or malpractice suits or anything like that."
Doggett suggests every homeowner to look at their property records regularly to make sure fraudulent situations are not affecting the ownership. On the Lee County website, you can file your property and get an alert if anything is filed on your property.
Virginia Hamrick from First Amendment Foundation says, "People should know we are a government for, by, and of the people. And, a lot of times, this is information that is about our schools. It’s about the services provided to the public. It’s information that the public could use to hold your government officials accountable."
Florida has a pretty wide open records law, as stated in Florida statute 119. Passed in 1909, it is written, "It is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records are open for personal inspection and copying by any person. Providing access to public records is a duty of each agency."
Doggett says, "While the Sunshine Law says everything is out there in the sunshine, it's just a generalized rule that things have to be made public." Exceptions include cases involving sexual violence victims, or information that would be vulnerable to identity theft or fraud, like social security numbers. Such information would be redacted or remain confidential.
The Sunshine Law also covers open government. Hamrick says, "The Florida Supreme Court has said that the government cannot make decisions in private anymore. They can't make decisions behind closed doors. The Sunshine Law makes these decisions, makes our decision makers, our elected officials, make them in public, where the public can hear what's going on. Journalists can be there. And, the public can weigh in, in the decision-making process."
To make a public records request, many agencies like Lee County Clerk of Court offer a court case search. Others set up a portal system. In its basic form, you can request public documents either verbally or in a written request.
If you are denied your request, ways to have recourse include mediation from the Attorney General's Office or, filing a lawsuit. The Orlando Sentinel filed and won a suit against the state of Florida in December of 2020, for delays in receiving the weekly coronavirus reports from the White House.
The third method is going to the State Attorney's Office. FOX 4 reporter, Rochelle Alleyne, recalls kicking it up to the SAO when she worked in a Texas newsroom. She says, "I've learned that the more important I think a piece of information is, the harder it is to obtain. I think a lot of times, when there's especially government agencies, when they don't want to have information get out, you start having to jump through hoops, right. There's exemptions. And, in Texas I've had to kick it up to the State Attorneys Office. And say, 'Hey! This information is important to the public.' And, they ruled in my favor."