Florida Freedom of Information Act
What is the Florida Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is an open government law that permits public access to information held by public authorities. Florida FOIA law is the Sunshine Law and is a series of statutes that provides for public access to the records of government agencies in the state. The Florida Sunshine Law helps the government prove its transparency and accountability in handling the people's business by:
- Requiring authorities to publish certain information about their activities; and
- Granting members of the public the right to request information from public authorities.
Florida's practice of transparency in governance dates to 1909, when Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes, or the "Public Records Law," was enacted. This statute requires that any records created or received by a public agency in the course of its official business be available for inspection unless the Florida Legislature expressly exempts them. The term "public records" has evolved through time to include not just conventional written materials such as papers, maps, and books, but also tapes, pictures, video, sound recordings, and information kept on computers.
The Florida government adopted the Sunshine Law in 1967. These laws guarantee a fundamental right to access the majority of meetings of state and municipal governmental agencies or authorities' boards, commissions, and other governing bodies.
Florida's Sunshine Law establishes a right of access to state and municipal government proceedings. It applies to any meeting of two or more members of the same board for the purpose of discussing an issue that will likely come before that board for decision. The Sunshine legislation mandates that:
- Boards and commissions meetings must be open to the public;
- Sufficient notice of such meetings must be provided; and
- Minutes of the meeting must be taken.
What is Covered Under the Florida Freedom of Information Act?
The Florida Sunshine Law gives citizens the right to access the public records of all state, county, and municipal governments and any other public or private organization operating on behalf of these agencies. Hence, the law applies to both local and state public collegiate entities within the state. It applies to all boards and commissions, whether elected or appointed.
According to Fla. Stat. § 119.011(12), public records are expansively defined to include:
- Sound recordings
- Data processing software
These materials or any other materials, regardless of physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission, received or made with respect to law or ordinance, or in line with the transaction of official agency or business, are all captured in Florida's definition of public records. According to Section 119.011 of the Florida Statutes, the state defines an agency as any state, county, district, authority, municipal officer, department division, bureau, commission, board, or any other separate unit of government founded by law. An agency may also be any other private or public unit, partnership, business entity, or corporation acting on behalf of another public agency.
The Sunshine Law also covers:
- Any committee meeting where the committee has delegated authority to act on behalf of a board
- Any investigative, formal, or informal meeting of two or more board members except where a statutory exemption forbids the inspection of the meeting record. Such meetings include complaint review board meetings, personnel committee meetings, disciplinary and grievance meetings, applicant interviews, selection, and screening committee meetings.
- Any assembly of two or more members of the same board, whether official or informal, to discuss subjects on which the board will take action in the near future.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Florida?
Pursuant to Section 119.071 of the Florida Statutes, the following records are general exemptions from the FOIA law:
- Examinations questions and answer sheets of examinations administered by a governmental agency for licensure, employment, or certification.
- Sealed bids, proposals, and replies in the bidding process
- Financial statements submitted in a bidding process or proposal for a road or other public works project
- Video materials under an agreement with an agency, produced, received, or in the custody of a federally licensed television or radio station or its agent
- Sensitive agency-produced data processing software
- U.S. Census Bureau address information, including maps revealing structure location points, agency records verifying addresses, and agency records identifying address errors, which an agency holds under the Local Update of Census Addresses Program
- Criminal intelligence or investigative information obtained by a criminal justice agency before January 25, 1979
- Active criminal intelligence or investigative information
- Any information revealing surveillance techniques, processes, or personnel
- Any information indicating the substance of a confession of an arrestee
- Any revealing information relating to a confidential source or informant
- Any complaints or related information pertaining to a complaint of discrimination of race, sex, color, religion, origin, age, handicap, or marital status
- Any information revealing the identity of the victim of child abuse or sexual offense
- A photograph or video material of any body part of the victim of a sexual offense.
- Structural blueprints, schematic drawings, internal layout of buildings, arenas, stadia, water treatment facility, or any other structure operated by an agency
- Medical information and social security numbers of past and current agency employees which the employing agency maintains
- Personal identifying information of a dependent child or a previous or current employee of an agency, in which an agency group insurance plan insures the dependent child
- Any revealing information (such as the home address, telephone number, mailing address, and GPS coordinates) of the Department of Children and Families, Department of Health, Department of Revenue, Department of Financial Services, Office of Financial Regulation's Bureau of Financial Investigations, and other agency personnel listed in Section 119.071 of the Florida FOIA.
- Any personal identifying information contained in records relating to an individual's personal health.
The Florida Sunshine Law also contains:
- Executive branch agency exemptions contained in Section 119.0711
- Executive branch agency-specific exemptions contained in Section 119.0712
- Local government agency exemptions contained in Section 119.0713
How Do I File a Florida Freedom of Information Act Request?
Nothing in the Florida Sunshine Law requires a FOIA request to be made in writing or in person; however, Florida citizens may opt to submit their request in writing to ensure they have an accurate record of their requests. Unless otherwise exempted, a public record custodian must fulfill a request for public records made over the phone, in person, or in writing, as long as the applicable costs are paid. Furthermore, nothing in the law compels the requestor to reveal the cause for the request.
Upon determining the custodian of the public record being sought, you may make an informal request to the custodian's contact number via telephone. You can typically find FOIA contact numbers on the websites of the agencies in the custody of the requested records. Some agencies also provide fillable FOIA request forms online and downloadable FOAI application forms on their websites for requesters to make FOIA requests.
If you choose to make your FOIA request formally, the request must be addressed to the custodian of the public record at the agency with custody of the records you seek. Typically, written FOIA request letters contain:
- A statement specifying that you are requesting a public record under the Florida Sunshine Law
- A definite description of the records that you seek to obtain
- Your name and the contact details to reach you. Note that under the Florida Sunshine Law, requesters are not compelled to reveal their names.
- A date range for the requested record
- A demand that, if your request is refused, the agency provides the specific legislative citation that authorizes the rejection, as required by Florida Statutes 119.07(1)(d)
To request a public record from the Department of State, you may submit your request in person, by telephone, email, facsimile, or U.S. mail. Make requests to:
Florida Department of State
Office of the General Counsel
Attn: Kevin Avila
500 South Bronough Street, Suite 100
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0250
Phone or Fax
Phone: (850) 245-6507
Fax: (850) 245-6127
For public record requests to the Florida Department of Health, submit your applications in person, by phone, fax, email, or regular mail to:
Public Records Coordinator
4052 Bald Cypress Way-Bin A02
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1702
Phone: (850) 245-4005
Fax: (850) 413-8743
The FDOH recommends that requesters provide their names, email addresses, mailing addresses, and telephone numbers so that an FDOH official may contact them for any inquiries from the Department. Other information may also be included in the request to assist the Department in location and responding, such as:
- A specific time frame for which the requested record
- As much information as possible about the requested record, such as the name of the document, the section or agency that produced the record, and the subject matter.
- Senders' and recipients' names (s), keywords, and dates are required if you request an email record.
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Florida?
An agency may charge you either a predetermined price authorized by law or no more than $0.15 per page or $0.20 per double-sided page if no cost is prescribed. If you request to obtain a certified copy of a public record, the agency may charge up to $1 per page. Pursuant to Section 119.07(4) of Florida Statutes, if you submit a request of such a sort and volume that it demands the agency's considerable use of information technology or staff time, the agency is authorized to impose a fair service fee that represents the actual cost incurred. This statute applies only to existing documents. The Florida Sunshine Law does not require public record custodians to create records in response to applicants' requests but may do so at their discretion.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Florida?
The Florida Sunshine Law does not compel public record custodians to respond to FOIA requests within a specific time frame. However, per Section 119.07(1)(a),(c) of the Florida Statutes, Florida courts determined that an agency must respond within a "reasonable" time to locate requested records and redact exempt sections of the records. An "unreasonable" delay in granting access to public records to an individual who has requested to inspect or copy an agency's records may be construed as a denial for the purpose of judicial relief. Note that a delay in obtaining a public record may occur if the record custodian's office is inundated with a large volume of requests or if contact must be made with another agency before the record can be located.
Ensure that you get a written refusal from the agency if an agency or record custodian denies your request or takes an "unreasonable" amount of time to respond. If the agency has not explicitly stated the statute under which it believes the record is exempt, request that it does so. Subsequently, you may take any of the following steps following the denial of the request:
- Seek mediation through the Attorney General's Open Government Mediation Program.
- Make a formal complaint to the state attorney in your area (state attorneys are empowered to prosecute suits charging public officials with violations of the Public Records Act).
- File a writ of mandamus in court.