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FIU Bridge Collapse: Do Public Records Stop Being Public Records When There’s an Investigation?

by | Sep 13, 2018 | Media Law, Public Records

NTSB Photo by Chris O’Neil - Public DomainThe FIU bridge collapse this past March was a terrible tragedy. Investigators are still trying to piece together what happened to prevent another such occurrence in the future.

As a part of this, FDOT has been working with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), providing them with documentation regarding the construction of the bridge. While those two organizations have been conducting their investigation, the press has been reporting on it and updating the public on relevant information uncovered from various related documents.

For the most part, this relationship was running quite smoothly. Media outlets were asking for information in the public record, and FDOT was providing it.

However, that hit a bit of a snag when The Miami Herald tried to get FDOT to release certain records. FDOT was instructed by the NTSB that they were only allowed to release records prior to February 20 – anything after that would be reviewed on an individual basis.

Not surprisingly, the Herald sued, arguing that they were being denied access to public records as set down in the Florida statutes. FDOT countered that the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) prevents them from releasing “information obtained during an investigation at any time prior to the NTSB’s public release of information…”

However, the information in the records the Herald asked for was not “obtained during an investigation,” but prior to the bridge ever collapsing. Before the investigation commenced, it would have been information in the public record.

So, did the fact that the NTSB started investigating suddenly change the status of those records?

According to the judge in the case, absolutely not. The Court has ordered FDOT to provide the Herald with any records they requested from the time prior to the collapse occurring. Records made after that time could be considered as “obtained during an investigation” and would therefore not be public.

At least, that was the situation until a federal judge put the Florida state judge’s order on hold on August 23 while the NTSB attempts to have the case moved to federal court.

Given that the language in the applicable guidelines has been found “clear and unambiguous” by all involved parties, the ruling should stay the same. However, it seems obvious that the NTSB hopes to find an audience friendlier to their argument in federal court.

What will happen? We’ll have to stay tuned.


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