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Florida Supreme Court Decides Not to Weigh in on Release of Parkland Shooting Surveillance

by | Nov 1, 2018 | Media Law, Public Records

When a tragedy like the Parkland shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School occurs, there tend to be two schools of thought where the release of information is concerned.

On the one hand, Florida’s Public Records Act protects the rights of citizens and news organizations to access certain kinds of evidence and information to monitor how well government is functioning. On the other, governing and investigative bodies often have a vested interest in withholding some of that information.

This is a battle that has been going on for months in Florida, and recently the State Supreme Court weighed in… by not weighing in.

Why Didn’t the Florida Supreme Court Weigh In?

Let’s start from the beginning.

After only some records and video footage from the day of the shooting were released in March, news outlets made a request for more, so they could get a better sense of the police response—what went wrong and what went right. Also, the public should know how public agencies might have dealt or not dealt with the shooter before he picked up his weapons. Both the Broward County School Board and the State’s Attorney’s Office balked, citing security concerns and the fact that the footage was part of an ongoing criminal investigation, respectively.

Media organizations fought back in court and won both the original case and the appeal. The footage was supposed to be released on July 27, but the School Board and State’s Attorney’s Office appealed again – this time all the way to the Supreme Court of Florida.

However, on August 22, the justices declined to review the lower court decisions, effectively agreeing that the decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal was the correct one.

The Supreme Court followed typical protocol and did not offer a reason for declining the case. We cannot say for certain why the justices refused to take up the appeal. What we can do, though, is take a look back at the reasoning offered by the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

In that decision, “good cause” played a large role.

What Is “Good Cause”, and Why Does It Apply Here?

While the public agencies opposing release of the records argued that the records pertained to security systems and were therefore exempt, the Public Records Act has an exception that allows release of such records when a court finds good cause. “Good cause” is a broad legal term that can be applied in a wide variety of situations.

In this case, the appeals court decision says there is good cause to agree with the argument news media outlets are making. The public had a right to the information that the School Board and State’s Attorney’s Office were withholding.

Perhaps the clearest explanation was the one offered by the attorneys of the news organizations in their brief defending the appeals court’s decision. In it, they stated that the court “simply applied the relevant provisions of the public records act to the unique and well-developed facts and evidence below.” 

In other words, the public’s right to know trumped the right of the Board and the State’s Attorney’s Office to keep the information secret. It is a big decision in a case that may very well impact how much access to information the public is given in future incidents like this. Also, public disclosure of records related to these murders may help school boards, police departments, and other public agencies take steps to avoid similar crimes in the future.

The Battle Continues

Even after this decision, the battle for public records related to the shooting is not over. Just recently, on October 22, the South Florida Sun Sentinel joined forces with parents of some of the murder victims by going to court to obtain additional public records about government performance and the mental health of the gunman. We will have to stay tuned to learn how that case turns out.


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