May 24, 2020
Florida Icon Barbara Petersen

Photo: Scott Holstein

Barbara Petersen, retired president of the First Amendment Foundation, Tallahassee; age 67

Florida Icon Barbara Petersen

Art Levy | 2/26/2020

We spend too many hours in front of our screens — and not enough hours out in our community.

After graduating from law school at Florida State, I got hired by a legislative committee — it was the Joint Committee on Information Technology Resources — and it was my job to analyze the impact of advances in technology on Florida’s public records law. That’s how I developed a passion for open government.

I was always outside as a kid, either riding my bike, playing in the woods or reading.

People think that access to information and the people’s right of access to information came out of the Watergate era. It didn’t. James Madison is considered to be the father of open government.

Tallahassee is uniquely beautiful. If I had to live anywhere else in Florida, I would probably move to Jacksonville. I love Jacksonville, too.

The fact that the majority of people don’t know what’s in the Constitution — they don’t know what rights are protected by the First Amendment — is kind of frightening to me.

My dad had three newspapers delivered to our house. The Washington Post, the Washington Star, which was the evening newspaper, and the Christian Science Monitor. I grew up in a time when people were acutely aware of what was going on.

Dale Earnhardt’s death, you wouldn’t think that there was a public records or open government issue there, but there was. Terri Schiavo. 9/11. Jeffrey Epstein. The Pulse nightclub. Parkland. The foundation has been involved in those. Access to government information plays a critical role in the public’s understanding.

My house is in Lafayette Park. I have lots of big trees and lots of camellias and fruit trees. I just like working in the yard. It gives me a lot of satisfaction.

There’s more divisiveness now in politics than I’ve ever seen in my life.

People don’t understand that open government is not a partisan issue.

Monty Python always makes me laugh.

When we have elected officials openly expressing disdain for the media, sort of encouraging a distrust of the media, that has an effect. And equally problematic to me is when we have elected officials showing a lack of support, to put it mildly, for open government.

I grew up eating strictly Southern food, grits and greens. I’ll eat anything now, anything but lima beans.

It’s arguable, but I do believe that Florida has the best open government laws in the country, both our statutory right of access, the Sunshine law, and the public records law. And the constitutional right of access. We’re used as a model, not just by other states, but other countries. On the down side, and this is a flaw and a weakness in our law that the Legislature won’t address, is the lack of enforcement.

David Bralow, who is a media attorney, once told me that I could be amazed, but I should never be surprised.

I’m just in awe of the reporters. You see somebody like (Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau chief ) Mary Ellen Klas out there covering something, and she’s not just covering it and reporting on it, but she’s also tweeting on it and she’s taking photographs and video because everything’s got to be multi-media now. They’re doing it all, and they’re doing it with such commitment. I really am proud that I’ve been able to help them because I think a free and fair press is critical to the future of this country.

Lawton Chiles was the governor when I started at the foundation, and he was OK on open government. He wasn’t great. Jeb Bush, coming from the private sector, I think it surprised him, but he came around and was OK on open government. Charlie Crist was governor sunshine! He was great on open government. Rick Scott was awful. He was where sunshine goes to die, as far as I’m concerned. The jury’s still out on Ron DeSantis. I’m getting a lot of complaints, frankly, about the slowness in responding to public records requests in his administration, but he’s not been in office very long. Are we going to improve from the dark days of Scott? I’m hoping so, but I haven’t seen anything dramatic happen yet.

After the 2000 election, and the U.S. Supreme Court said it was George W. Bush, I came to the office the next morning, and my first phone call was from an 80-year-old woman, I think from Naples, saying she didn’t believe it and she wanted to count the ballots. Well, that’s how you do it.

By exposing ourselves to the arts, we develop understanding and appreciation and empathy that we would not otherwise have. I think one thing that we’re losing in society today is empathy.

I don’t really have the temperament to retire. Do you know Stew Lilker from the Columbia County Observer? He just sent me a book on how to relax.

 

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