It’s back. Legislation that would provide a public records exemption for information about applicants seeking a state university or college presidential position cleared its first committee stop Tuesday afternoon.
The move marks the bill’s start on a journey all too familiar — this will be the proposal’s eighth time trying to cross the finish line in Florida’s Legislature.
Lawmakers have filed such proposals in the past but have faced heavy opposition from open-government advocates. The House passed a version of the bill during the 2021 Session, but it did not clear the Senate.
However, it may face more hurdles this time around with freedom-centric talk prioritized by the state’s GOP leadership.
The measure (SB 520) was filed by St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who has sponsored the bill for several years now. It was approved by the Senate Education Committee in a 6-3 vote Tuesday split between party lines.
The bill would create a public records exemption that would apply to the pool of public university and college presidential applicants, though information on the selected finalists would be available. After finalists are announced, the measure would provide a 21-day period for that information to be made public.
Brandes’ goal is to encourage a broader pool of applicants who may have shied away from applying because of the need to makes applicants’ records public.
“Employees of other institutions outside the state of Florida are fearful of applying because they know that their application will be made available to their current employer,” Brandes said at the meeting.
As it has in years past, the legislation has already drawn opponents — including the Florida Education Association — who cite the state’s robust open records standard.
This year, the bill is facing unique criticism with opponents drawing from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ State of the State Address, in which the Governor described the state as “freedom’s vanguard.”
“While so many around the country have consigned the people’s rights to the graveyard, Florida has stood as freedom’s vanguard,” DeSantis said Tuesday.
Opponent Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, referenced the freedom-heavy rhetoric of the GOP leading up to this year’s Session and labeled the public records exemption bill hypocritical.
“There’s been a lot of talk in this process over the last year or so about protecting our constitutional rights and freedoms. Our right to public meetings and public records is enshrined in Article One of Florida’s Constitution. Not Article Two, not Article Three — Article One, right there next to religious freedom, the right to bear arms and the freedom of speech,” Templin said.
Templin went on to criticize the justification for the bill, saying it is “not based in fact” and therefore the records should not be subject to exemptions. Part of Brandes’ defense of the bill is that it will reduce the use of headhunting firms used to find applicants. But some are not so sure.
“The Sunshine Law is not hindering our ability to hire the best qualified academic individuals and professionals in the country,” Templin said. “In reality, though, when you’re talking about diminishing our most basic rights and freedoms as outlined in Article One of our constitution, the responsibility is on all of you to justify that.”
Rep. Sam Garrison filed the House version of the bill (HB 703), which is awaiting its first of three committee meetings.
Because the bill would create a public records exemption, it requires a two-thirds vote of each legislative chamber to become law.