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Sunshine laws blasted by university president

November 6, 1997

The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information celebrated its 20thanniversary this month with a one-day conference and an induction of several notables into a Hall of Fame.

The keynote speaker, University of Florida President John Lombardi, was clearly out of sync with the event.

In a finger-pointing speech, Lombardi ripped the media and open government laws. Lombardi's speech was more than just condescending, it was downright insulting. But other seasoned reporters at the Brechner luncheon weren't so startled as the rest of us out-of-towners.

"It's typical Lombardi," one said.

Just before the Oct. 17 celebration in Gainesville, Lombardi found himself in a tight spot over tenure review committees. He blamed advocates for his decision to close down UF's promotion and tenure committees. The decision came after counsel to the university said the committees were governed by Sunshine Law provisions.

His chiding speech was reported in The Gainesville Sun: "Lombardi also blasted the state's public records laws as 'a crutch for lazy newspeople.' "

He seemed particularly proud of a reporter's request for his e-mail that was turned over -- but most of it being in a foreign language that the reporter clearly couldn't decipher.

"I can't tell you how many requests (for information) are simply trash," he told the crowd.

Lombardi seems to be one of those public officials who is clearly fed up with pesky reporters demanding public information in order to inform its readers.

He also clearly thinks he knows best as to what information ought to be released to the public.

Lombardi is entitled to his opinion.

But Richard Scher, UF political science instructor, said what all of us were thinking: "It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience."

Aside from Lombardi's eruption, the event nonetheless marked an important moment in FOI good deeds.

As one of the few Freedom of Information centers in the nation, Brechner provides help to working journalists, debates the issues with public officials, sponsors research, and publishes state guides to meetings and records laws in Florida.

Its website is at http://www.jou.ufl.edu/brechner/brochure/htm

The center began as a clearinghouse after receiving more than $1 million from Orlando broadcaster Joseph L. Brechner. In 1986, it was renamed the Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.

Rich with history, SPJ hopes the Brechner Center will be around for the next 20 years.

Congratulations to Director Bill F. Chamberlin and Assistant Director Sandra F. Chance for a job well done. Chance also serves as SPJ's state sunshine chair.

The center will be awarded a State Sunshine Award from SPJ next month in Arlington, Va.

Last Call

SPJ's fourth annual FOI conference will be in Arlington, Va.
Mark your calendar for Nov. 14-16, a Friday through Sunday event.Speakers include Pulitzer Prize finalist Gary Cohn, reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Cohn used the Freedom of Information Act to crack a story with his partner, Ginger Thompson, on a CIA-trained Honduran army unit that kidnapped, tortured and murdered suspected subversives in the 1980s.

Paul McMasters is also hosting a reception Friday at the Newseum beginning at 5:30 p.m.

A roundtable discussion with access-minded groups will end the event on Sunday morning.

On-site registration is $55. You can call headquarters to reserve at spot at 317/927-8000. Ask for Heather Gilbert.

FOI Success story

Valencia County settled a lawsuit Oct. 3 filed by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and the Valencia News-Bulletin. The county agreed to pay $16,000 in attorneys' fees and costs to comply with provisions of the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act. The case began in 1993 when David Grenham, then editor of the News-Bulletin, asked the county sheriff for access to dispatch, 911 and regular telephone logs. Additional requests were made for public information in 1993 and 1994. The stipulated judgment requires the county to educate its officials and employees on the records act and order them to carry out requirements of the act.

Stories worth checking out

See the New York Times article "In Prison, but Free to Get Information" published on page C-16 on Monday, Oct. 20. The story focuses on FOI requests made by prison inmates and legislative attempts to quash those requests. In January, the State Association of District Attorneys in New York plans to introduce a bill that would limit a prisoner's ability to file FOI requests for public information. The story cites an instance in Buffalo where an inmate has requested crime-scene photos and a videotape of his victim's body. The story doesn't say if the request was granted.

Quote of note

"Enough's enough," said actor Brad Pitt, in the November issue of PREMIERE magazine. "I don't feel that when our forefathers made the laws they thought of 600-millimeter lenses. People say, 'He's famous, he has no right to privacy.' I didn't read that anywhere in the Bill of Rights."

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