A former Florida lawmaker won’t face prosecution for violating the state’s open-meetings laws after a judge ruled Tuesday that applying the law to a private citizen could violate a constitutional right to free speech.
County Judge Tanya Davis Wilson threw out a misdemeanor count against Chris Dorworth, who had been charged with violating Florida’s “Sunshine Law” for his lobbying work with the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority. She said the Sunshine Law wasn’t intended to be applied to private citizens.
“If this application of the law is permitted, private citizens will be hesitant to exercise their First Amendment right to communicate with public officials for fear that their communications will constitute a violation of the Sunshine Law,” the judge wrote in her order.
Prosecutors had said Dorworth, along with an authority board member and a Department of Transportation public affairs worker, participated in meetings and communicated about expressway business through “conduits, intermediaries or third parties.” Dorworth’s trial was set to start later this week.
Dorworth’s attorney had argued it was the first time a private citizen had been prosecuted for violating the public meetings law.
“A person has a constitutional right not only to exercise political speech but to speak to their representatives,” said Richard Hornsby, Dorworth’s attorney.
State Attorney Jeff Ashton says his office will appeal the judge’s decision. He said it was important for an appellate court to make a ruling given that no private citizen has ever been prosecuted previously for violating the open meetings law.
“The lack of legal opinions on this very important issue makes it imperative that the appellate court address the issue,” Ashton said in a statement.
Dorworth had been in line to be Florida’s next House Speaker until he lost a re-election bid in November 2012.
Former expressway board member Richard “Scott” Batterson was convicted of two second-degree felony charges in August, and he was sentenced to more than seven years in prison last week.
A charge against former Florida Department of Transportation public affairs worker Rebekah Hammond was dropped earlier this year.