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Miami Herald loses appeal of “black outs” in public records

in Statewide by

A Florida appeals court has ruled that state agencies don’t have to give a specific reason when they black out an individual bit of information in a document produced under a public-records request.

Specifically, a three-judge panel of the the 1st District Court of Appeal said the state’s “Public Records Act does not require agencies to specifically identify the statutory exemption relied upon for each redaction on a redaction-by-redaction basis.”

But one of the judges separately warned that Monday’s opinion “should not foreclose a future challenge.”

The Miami Herald, which had filed a records request with the Department of Corrections, sued after the department “refused to specify the particular exemption relied upon for each redaction.”

It had sought the documents for an investigative report into abuses and deaths in the state’s prison system.

But Corrections provided only “a cover form indicating the agency’s position that the documents, as a whole, contained information that was subject to one or more of five statutory exemptions.”

Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds III at first said the department didn’t need to state a specific reason for every edit, then reconsidered his opinion and decided they did need to.

The appellate judges—T. Kent Wetherell II, Joseph Lewis Jr. and Stephanie W. Ray—said Reynolds got it right the first time.

State law “plainly requires only record-by-record—not redaction-by-redaction—identification of the exemptions authorizing the redactions in each record,” the opinion said.

But Ray wrote separately, saying the Herald’s “concern is significant.”

Other plaintiffs may win future suits over “an agency’s method of identifying … exemptions in a public records response” if the state’s vagueness “essentially renders the mandates of Florida’s Public Records Act meaningless,” she said. 

Barbara Petersen, president of The First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based open government watchdog, said in a text message, “This decision concerns me deeply and I hope the Herald decides to appeal.”

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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