Anyone familiar with American late-night TV knows that Florida has a reputation for being the punching bag of many a comedian. The Sunshine State, however, deserves a lot more credit according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which characterizes Florida as having “the most expansive open government laws in the country.” Living up to its praise, all state, county and municipal records and meetings are open to the public in Florida. In fact, any official action taken during closed meetings is considered nonbinding. It is a remarkably broad, sweeping gesture of goodwill by an open government to its citizens, and one we New Yorkers and all Americans should fight for.
It would be tempting to assume that a liberal bastion like New York State would be as forthcoming to its citizens, but one would be mistaken. The 1977 Freedom of Information law reads “The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government.” However, New York has a long litany of exemptions, including a 1985 amendment which, according to RCFP, excludes all deliberations of political committees, conferences and caucuses of legislative bodies from the Open Meetings Law. New York cannot espouse “open government” if it is committed to obscuring the political process from its citizens.
These instances show how “transparency, with exceptions” can sound nice in theory, but can in practice become “secrecy, with exceptions” if they’re broad and inflexible. The same criticism cannot be made against Florida, as it requires the automatic repeal of new or amended exemptions every five years. Exemptions can only be reinstated following a legislative review which demonstrates that an exemption serves a public purpose, is not too broad, and is the only way to accomplish said public purpose. Safeguards to openness must not only be established, but also regularly maintained, a form of legislative housekeeping the ‘Excelsior State’ conveniently skirts. Then again, New York’s obfuscation is not so surprising when nowhere in the state constitution is there any guarantee of access like that of which Florida proudly displays in the very first article in its Declaration of Rights. Something is seriously wrong when transparency is not considered as important a constitutional right of a state’s citizenry as the right of bingo — yes, that is actually in New York State’s Bill of Rights.
In the U.S., where the judicial system, executive and military actions and even comprehensive world-wide trade treaties are donning the armor of secrecy, citizens must wage a battle for openness wherever they can. Florida is a model of government transparency for the country, and states that hide from their citizens are the true butt of jokes.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the November 9th print edition. Email Abraham Gross at [email protected]