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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

There’s a special recipe involved in the making of the infamous Florida man stories. They usually involve an alligator, body of water, drugs or nudity and, if we’re really lucky, Taco Bell. The headlines for these stories are eye-catching, to say the least: “Naked Florida man baking cookies on George Foreman grill responsible for fire,” or “Florida man makes beer run with gator in hand.” (All real headlines.)

They shed Florida in some not-so-great light, but wow, do they make for some click-worthy content. The phenomenon is so common that “Florida Man” has garnered enough attention on the internet to become a meme, even gaining its own Twitter account, @_FloridaMan, dedicated to the collection of Florida man stories. Note, these stories aren’t exclusively men — there are a plethora of Florida women making headlines.

Here in the Sunshine State, we’re used to being the punch line of a joke, often brushing it off as just another part of living in Florida. We can try to attribute some of the bizarre stories to the suffocating humidity or a few bad cases of sun poisoning, but in reality, Florida just has some strange people doing some strange things. However, out of the entire U.S., it can feel like Florida is the only place where crazy stuff goes down, but that’s not entirely true.

One of the main reasons Florida can sometimes seem like the no man’s land of the South is because of its open public records laws, which compared to other states are very, well, open. Florida has the Florida Sunshine laws, which basically protects the public’s access to public records like documents, videos or audio concerning Florida’s government. For journalists, Florida is a never-ending field day of outlandish stories simply because they have relatively easy access to police reports, which isn’t common across the U.S. Comparatively, Florida has some of the best policies concerning public access to government documents.

In Florida, if a journalist gets a tip on an arrest, they can often email or call a police department, ask for the police report and receive it fairly quickly. They can have a story written that same day by simply attributing a police report. In many other states, however, the process of accessing police reports isn’t simple, and it may take weeks to get those reports. In a fast-paced newsroom, odd stories like the ones that show up Florida may not be worth the wait.

Ironically, the main reason behind the stories that highlight shameful aspects of Florida has come from something the state should be proud of: its transparency. However, back in April, our Sunshine Laws took a hit, with legislature passing a bill allowing for 12 exemptions to the laws. This comes in addition to the other 269 exemptions that have been passed since 1995. The laws were created not to make for newsworthy Florida man stories, but for a more important purpose: to provide for a transparent government. The Sunshine laws allow anyone to request access to government records that have not been exempted.

It’s possible other states have stories just as weird as we do, but without the same transparency, those unconventional stories can slip through the cracks. Florida’s laws allow for the people to act as watchdogs to the government, but it also gives people access to those oddball arrest reports that have birthed the Florida man. Instead of being embarrassed by our Florida man stories, we can be thankful that we even have the chance to read them.

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