The City of Orlando and a long list of news media are headed to court to decide whether scores of phone call recordings of the Pulse nightclub massacre should be released to the public.
Media companies including the Associated Press, the Orlando Sentinel, several Orlando TV stations, various other newspaper companies, TV networks and online news services filed suit against the city Thursday challenging the city’s strategy for blocking media and public access to recordings of phone calls from the Pulse nightclub the morning of the massacre.
In all, there were 22 news media or their parent companies, plus four press or freedom-of-the-press organizations, including Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, joining to sue the city.
The city contends the files are exempt from Florida’s broad public records laws for two reasons: because they’re part of an active criminal investigation; and because they may depict the killings of persons. Both are allowed as exemptions to the state law’s requirements that such records should be made public. So later Thursday, Orlando filed a countersuit against the Associated Press, seeking a declaratory judgement.
Both suits were filed in the 9th Judicial Circuit Court in Orlando.
The city wants a judge to declare immediately and once and for all that the materials exempt. If the “killings of persons” exemption is granted, it could seal the records forever.
“The unreleased portions of the Pulse shooting recordings are believed to depict ‘the killing of persons’ as defined by Florida Law, and may include the sound of gunfire, victims voices and the suffering perpetrated on the Pulse shooting victims,” the city argues. “Out of respect for the Pulse shooting victims and their families, and pursuant to Florida law and the direction of the FBI, the City has not released the remainder of the Pulse shooting recordings.”
The FBI has released a transcript of one of the Mateen’s calls to 911 and offered summary statements of two others.
The city also argues it attempted to negotiate the release of some records but could not get the news media to agree.
The news media want a judge to declare that the materials fail to meet the definitions for either exemption; or, if they do meet the definitions, that there is “good cause” for an exemption to the exemptions, so the record should be released.
“There is strong public interest in fully evaluating how first responders and police reacted during the most critical phases of this incredible tragedy,” the media’s lawsuit argues. “Information gleaned from the actual conversations with Mateen and others lies at the core of understanding exactly how events unfolded and will provide critical insight into the propriety of the government’s tactical response. The purpose of this action, therefore, is to obtain these records to permit the public to scrutinize and evaluate government behavior. In other words, to realize the central goal of open government laws.”
Specifically, the media are seeking recordings of four telephone conversations Mateen had with the police; and recordings of scores or even hundreds of other phone calls that came during the three hours of the massacre, the morning of June 12.
“The City has advised that six hundred and three (603) total calls were made to 911 and police/fire authorities during the approximately three-hour incident,” the media’s lawsuit states. “Upon information and belief, the City has yet to determine exactly how many of those calls actually relate to the Pulse shooting but all parties assume a large portion do in fact relate to the incident.”