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Date of Issue: July 28, 2010

Why is our government so reluctant to let us speak?

Historically, Floridians have placed great significance on their right to access the records and meetings of government. The state’s first public records law was codified in 1909, and the Sunshine Law, which requires that government meetings be open and noticed to the public, was passed in 1967, one of the first such laws in the nation.

This long tradition of open government culminated in the 1992 general election when Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing access to the records and meetings of government.

Access to records and meetings ensures the public has oversight of government. The importance of government oversight is based on core democratic principles and is critical to our ability to govern ourselves, to maintain civil liberties and historic freedoms.

The right to oversee and hold our government accountable for its actions is fundamental, and intricately woven into the fabric of our nation. We are, after all, a participatory democracy, a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” There is a reason why we refer to our elected and appointed government representatives as public servants – they work for us, the electorate who put them in office to represent our interests.

So why is our government so reluctant to let us speak?

In construing the right of the public to participate in meetings subject to the Sunshine Law, the Florida Supreme Court has stated that the public has an “inalienable right to be present and to be heard at all deliberations wherein decisions affecting the public are being made.”

There has been some confusion, however, regarding the scope of the right and how it is to be applied, and subsequent court decisions have stated that the public’s right to participate in all open meetings is not absolute.

Yet, according to a 2009 report by Florida’s Commission on Open Government Reform, local governments routinely prohibit public comment during workshops, and many don’t provide citizens with  “a meaningful opportunity to participate” at regular meetings.

The open government commission found that citizens are frustrated by the inability to address elected representatives at public meetings, and some are intimidated or harassed when they insist on exercising their right to speak within the guidelines set out by the governing body. 

Clearly, government agencies have the authority to adopt reasonable rules regulating a citizen’s right to speak at public meetings in order to assure the orderly progression of public meetings — reasonable time limits, for example — and to require orderly behavior.  But those rules should be reasonable and, in a democracy such as ours, must allow reasonable opportunities for public participation.

A meaningful opportunity to speak at public meetings, to participate in the deliberations of government, is critical to a democratic society and, according to a study conducted by Florida State University, fosters increased public trust in government. The study found a direct correlation between the public’s perception of government transparency and the level of public participation allowed by government, which in turn directly affects public trust.  In other words, operating in the sunshine fosters public trust and confidence.

Democracy is often messy and allowing for public participation is not always convenient, but how else can our government representatives know what we think and what we want them to do on our behalf, if they won’t allow us reasonable opportunities to speak?

Barbara Petersen is president of the First Amendment Foundation and former chair of Florida’s Commission on Open Government Reform.