Florida's No Wilder Than Any Other State, But The Revolutionary Sunshine Act Makes It Seems That Way

Is Florida as crazy as it seems? Anyone reading or watching the news knows a story beginning with the words “Florida man” - or any Florida resident, really - is bound to be good. Whether the crimes take place in southern grocery chain Publix or the Everglades, the reports range from hysterical to macabre in nature.

Jokes around the internet refer to “Florida Man” as one person wreaking havoc in the state, but the truth is less meme and more lawful.

Dating back to in 1909, Florida operates under the idea that the government works for the people, so their information should be available to the public. The group of laws that protect this transparency are called the Florida Sunshine Laws; they include access to arrest records and Florida mug shots, making reporters' jobs easier while creating the dysfunctional "Florida Man" mythos.

  • It All Began With “Chapter 119” In 1909 And Was Bolstered By The “Government-in-the-Sunshine Law” In 1967

    Florida’s progressive stance on open government began in 1909 with the passage of statute Chapter 119. Also known as the Public Records Law, it opens up official government documentation in the state to any citizen requesting it.

    The Government-in-the-Sunshine Law hit the books in 1967, adding meetings to the list of available records. That’s why Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez and his son Francis - a Miami-Dade County commissioner - posted a public notice for one of their discussions in 2015. The required sunshine notice detailed their planned topic of public transportation.

  • In Florida, Schools Fall Under The Umbrella Of Government Agencies

    The three branches of government - judicial, legislative, and executive - are the main focus of Florida’s records laws. However, various court rulings over the years found public schools and universities are also under the umbrella of government agencies.

    A 1980 Florida court ruled paperwork created by school boards for budgetary purposes are public records. Another case in 2008 set a precedent for the availability of employee health insurance plans - including information on their children and dependents.

    Teacher evaluations and disciplinary actions are also available to citizens, but not their medical records or any deductions taken from their payroll.   

  • Records Covered By The Law Include Video, Audio, And Software

    As with any law, Florida’s government transparency evolves with the technology available for record-keeping. According to the Florida Office of the Attorney General, public records include, “tapes, photographs, film, sound recordings, and records stored in computers.”

    These are in addition to older formats, such as paperwork, books, and maps.

  • Any Exception To The Law Must Be Justified And Specific

    Over the years, many challenges to the scope of the laws have come up. In 1995, the Open Government Sunset Review Act passed state legislature to provide guidelines for judging exemptions, specifying:

    An exemption must fit within one of three categories of identifiable public purposes, and must be seen as compelling enough to override the strong presumption of openness.

    Chapter 119 sets forth the framework for those guidelines, generally focusing on the safety of individuals versus the public’s right to have the information.

  • Exemptions To The Law “Sunset” If Not Renewed After Committee Review

    The Open Government Sunset Review Act provides guidelines for removing public access to specific records but also sets forth protections to limit any laws attempting to circumvent the Sunshine State Act.

    After a set time period, Florida lawmakers must renew a law or it is automatically repealed. This goes hand-in-hand with the constant re-evaluation of the framework that governs exemptions to public records access.

  • Journalists Can Call Police For Instant Arrest Record Access

    “Florida Man” emerged with journalists making a simple call to the police for full access to arrest records. A streamlining of this process came when law enforcement began posting mugshots and full details online for public use.

    Thanks to new technology, the writers of articles like “Florida Man, Shows IHOP Server His Butt When Free Food Request Doesn't Work” can use the details posted online to generate a post likely to attract fans of the “Florida Man” meme and strange crime news. Though some call providing such information progressive, it has also caused the state’s reputation to suffer through the reporting of so many odd infractions.