First Amendment Foundation launches right-to-know exemption tracker

By Carrie Salls | Jun 2, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG – Florida’s First Amendment Foundation recently added a ticker on its website that tracks exemptions in the state to the Right to Know Act, and two new controversial exemptions related to trade secrets will be added in the fall.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed two bills in February that will exempt trade secret financial information from the state’s Sunshine Laws. Those exemptions are scheduled to take effect on Oct. 1.

Specifically, Florida Senate Bills 180 and 182 expand the definition of trade secret for the purpose of right-to-know exemptions to include financial information. The bills do not define exactly what will be deemed to constitute financial information. 

SB 182 exempts financial information related to a trade secret, as defined under Section 812.081 of the Florida Statutes, meaning the public cannot access or copy exempted documents. The bill also excludes access to meeting documents that deal with discussions related to the trade secrets in question.

According to the language of the bill, SB 182 is designed to protect “trade secret information of a confidential nature, which includes, but is not limited to, a formula, a pattern, a device, a combination of devices, or a compilation of information used to protect or further a business advantage over those who do not know or use the information, the disclosure of which would injure the affected business in the marketplace.”

“The purpose of trade secret exemptions is to protect the economic investment of the creator or developer,” First Amendment Foundation president Barbara A. Petersen told the Florida Record. “Generally, trade secrets are things such as processes or formulas. I don’t have a problem with that.”

Petersen said, however, that she does take issue with the expansion of the definition of trade secret to include financial information. The acts allowing the new financial information exemptions were signed during the 2016 Florida legislative session.

"That is a step in the wrong direction,” Petersen said. "For example, (tourism promotion entity) VisitFlorida has claimed that the amount of money it’s paying (rapper) Pitbull to promote Florida tourism is trade secret. That’s baloney. Pitbull is being paid with our money, and we have a right to know how much he’s being paid and what he’s doing in return.”

Petersen said the Florida Constitution gives citizens the right to access the records of all three branches of state government and specifically states that only the legislature can create new exemptions to this right. Petersen said the tracker is designed to serve as visual evidence, and as a reminder, for the public, the media and government officials of the number of exceptions to the right to access.

“The tracker is a visual reminder of the erosion (of) our right of access,” Petersen said. “Each exemption is an exception to the constitutional right of access; some exemptions (such as the exemptions for Social Security numbers or personal financial information) are justified; others, such as the newly created and overly broad exemption for the State Boxing Commission, are not. The public needs to be aware of what our legislature is doing and the tracker serves that purpose.”

As of June 1, the foundation’s tracker showed that 1,119 exemptions to current government laws are currently on the books in Florida.

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