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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Politicians are trying to limit access to information. Let them know you're watching.

Whether you realize it or not, you benefit from and want there to be open information laws.

When Richard Spencer came to UF, you wanted to know how much the university spent on security. When student fees increase, you want to know why. When the legislature is in session, you want to know what they’re voting on, why and how it will affect you.

Anyone can file a public records request. But it’s the job of reporters to fight for this information and make it public. And the reason we’re able to do this is because of the state’s open-records laws, called Sunshine Laws.

But these laws are increasingly being restricted. For example, Florida law exempts the names, addresses and telephone numbers of certain government employees. It has expanded over the years, exempting the same information plus date of birth for people who hold or used to hold any of now more than 50 job titles.

This week is Sunshine Week, a national initiative launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, which celebrates open government laws by promoting conversation on the importance of it.

Even in places with open public records laws, many government offices make it extremely difficult for people to get the information they seek. Some hinder the process by citing privacy acts and other laws — even in cases that might not apply. In other cases, they provide the records with large sections blacked out, making it impossible to read.

It’s not just Florida. Washington state’s legislature recently tried to end public access to information from the legislature, seeking to exempt elected representatives’ emails, calendars, receipts and all other government communication from public knowledge.

According to an article by The Seattle Times, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee received about 20,000 calls and emails from constituents asking him to veto the bill, which he did earlier this month. Thankfully, he vetoed it. But would the constituents have known of the bill if the newspaper hadn’t published a story about it in the first place?

While we’re glad to see access to information prevail, the fact that an entire elected state legislature got as far as the governor’s desk to keep the public ignorant is horrific.

Florida enjoys more access to public information than most states, and as students at a public university, we have access to more information than private school students. It lets us hold people accountable. It’s why we ask how much people are paid to speak; it’s why we send reporters to every Student Government meeting. You have a right to know what is happening in your university, city, county and state.

But it is not always simple. Last Spring, The Alligator reported on what some sources called a “toxic environment” at UF’s Multicultural and Diversity Affairs; we received nearly all blacked-out pages after requesting public records.

Government offices can also charge thousands for requests and take months, even years to fulfill them. If a person of low income seeks information, but gets roadblocked with a large bill, is the information really accessible to the public?

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This is why it’s important to oppose laws that restrict access to this information while keeping a watchful eye on those who should be complying with them.

Support local newspapers and state organizations like the First Amendment Foundation, which advocate for open records laws. And show up to a government meeting on occasion.

Let them know you’re watching.

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