As we wrap up National Free Speech Week, it’s a good time to reflect on what is arguably the most important of American constitutional rights. And that is the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Without the First Amendment, it’s safe to say the public and press would receive little information about government and the officials who run it.
From the founding of the nation to the present, free speech — especially when it comes to exposing government misconduct — has always depended on the public’s parallel right to a free flow of information. The right to receive information about government is part and parcel of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee. And in Florida, the right to receive information about government is fortified by the state’s Public Records Act, the strongest state law in the country ensuring the public’s right to see most records made or received by state and local government officials.
Ready public access to government records is alive and well in Northwest Florida. The Daily News’s ongoing coverage of the Okaloosa County School District’s handling of special needs students is a prime example. It’s a hometown newspaper working overtime to cover school board and other local government activity for readers where others haven’t the necessary time or energy to do it.
And so it bears asking, in Okaloosa County’s case, who would have known the School District conducted an investigation of special needs student treatment and declined to release it to the public upon completion?
Who would have known the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office investigated the same public school treatment of special needs students? (An investigation that led to felony charges against three current or former Okaloosa County School District employees for failure to report what happened to students).
And who would have ever known the State of Florida’s Education Practices Commission investigated and eventually required the surrender of a public school special needs educator’s teaching certificate over treatment of a student?
The answer in each case is that only through the Daily News’s pursuit and analysis of Sheriff’s Office and other investigation records — that were not immediately disclosed to the public — was the truth revealed. And all of the reporting that has followed was made possible through the strength of the Florida Public Records Act and a First Amendment right to know about government conduct.
All of this serves to remind us — during Free Speech Week — how the First Amendment and Florida open government law help preserve the public’s right to know. Treasure it.
John Bussian is a First Amendment lawyer who represents media interests and defends the Right to Know in courts across the country.