Florida Lawmakers Push Secrecy Bill For Personal Safety

By  //  May 28, 2021

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The Florida Legislature touts a bill that renders the contact information of lawmakers and their immediate family members secret. The history of HB 1207 shows that it was introduced on March 22, cleared first reading three days later, and went before the Public Integrity and Elections Committee on March 29, 2021. 

If passed, taxpayers will no longer have access to the home address, phone numbers, and birth dates of current legislators. Likewise, the bill will sequester the name and location of the educational and daycare facility of a legislator’s child from public disclosure. The same applies to the place of employment of a legislator’s spouse. 

According to sponsors, the bill is needed to prevent the intimidation and verbal assault of legislators and their immediate family members. Sponsors hope it will encourage residents to participate actively in political affairs. “Vulnerability to such threats [verbal threats, harassment, and intimidation] may discourage residents of this state from seeking elected office to protect themselves and their families.”

Experts view this bill as a step back from a few decades earlier when politicians proudly listed their contact information in public directories. With the advent of technology, Florida phone directories are now online, and anyone may use a phone number to find their contact information. 

Steve Bousquet, a political writer, argues that listing the contact information of public servants is part of the job. “If you needed to find your legislator, you looked up the name of Howard Forman, or Toni Jennings, for instance. It went with the job, which is called [sic] public office for a reason.” 

First Amendment Foundation, an open government watchdog, argues that the bill makes public oversight and accountability harder since residents will have no way of confirming that elected officials live in the districts they represent.

Opposers predict a dominoes effect if the legislature vote to pass the bill into law, arguing that once the legislature begins to enjoy such a level of secrecy, state and county executives would push for equal coverage. 

Although the GOP comprises the majority of both houses, the bill must garner bipartisan support to become a new public records exemption law. HB 1207 must receive support from two-thirds of both houses, i.e., 27 senators and 80 representatives.