Library patrons in North Tallahassee are competing this week for parking spaces with throngs of early voters. Signs in the makeshift precinct warn partisans and press people where, exactly, the “solicitation boundary” lies.
For Florida First Amendment junkies, the signs are a melancholy hat tip to attorney Steve Carta, who died of cancer in September.
The longtime lawyer for the Ft. Myers News-Press is remembered for a long list of groundbreaking media victories, including that time in the ’80s when Carta smacked down an unholy state effort to prohibit photographers and reporters from covering the comings and goings at the polls.
Carta was a reporter’s lawyer. They loved him for his willingness to fight with everybody about everything that stood between News-Press readers and the news. He worked untold unbillable hours to keep his press cases on budgets that didn’t get editors in trouble with their publishers.
If there were no precedent for what the newsies wanted to do, Carta would create one.
Lee Melsek was the first reporter who ever thought to ask Lee County officials for a look at employee personnel files. Officials told him to pound sand. Carta pounded back. His work in News-Press v. Wisher carved into stone a right the press and public now take for granted.
Melsek retired in 2004, but fired up his keyboard to remember Carta in a Sept. 9 News-Press op-ed:
“When we investigated the shenanigans at Lee Memorial Hospital and its longtime president in 1979, Steve again was with us, literally. When hospital security guards pinned me and reporter Barbara Johnson against a wall as we came to ask for public records, Steve rushed to the hospital and made it clear to administrators the paper would not tolerate that kind of bullying of its reporters. In case after case, hearing after hearing, Steve Carta defended this community’s right to know what its government was up to and opened so many dark corners to the daylight the law requires. He was working for this paper, but in so many ways he was also the community’s lawyer. He worked hard to see that government lawyers didn’t succeed in their specious arguments to keep the public’s business private. Gradually, as they lost case after case, these local governments began to understand that the old ways of secrecy and operating in dark rooms was no longer going to work.
“Steve was as important to that mission as any editor or publisher or reporter who ever worked here. He was the sharpshooter armed with the law and a very special ability to aim well.”
Barbara Johnson Liston is still a reporter, writing for Reuters and otherwise keeping alive the values that animated Carta’s life and work.
“I have such great memories of going to court with him or going over story drafts on what seemed like a daily basis. It was an exciting time for both of us,” Liston recalled. “Steve is frozen in my mind as young, aggressive, and brilliant. Getting sued or accused of nefarious things is part of the job for investigative reporters. But Steve helped make sure all of our reporting was rock solid. No one ever got past his motions to dismiss.”