Have you ever wished to be a fly on the wall and could hear the things government officials are saying behind your back?
Using a digital audio recorder, that’s exactly what PINAC reporter Jeff Gray did at a recent St. Augustine school board meeting.
The recording was made after Gray had stepped out the room, capturing a Florida school district superintendent saying he wishes he could change the state’s Sunshine Law that allows citizens to ask for public records without presenting identification.
“I think we need the law changed for public records,” St. Johns County Schools Superintendent Joseph Joyner can be heard saying on the recording.
“You can’t ask someone to identify themselves. You ought to be able to ask someone for their ID.”
State law also allows citizens to attend public meetings without presenting identification, but that did not stop these officials from demanding Gray’s identification upon entry, which he refused to do.
But that’s not where things get interesting. The fireworks begin once the video goes dark, but the audio continues after Gray steps out the room.
It should be noted that Florida is a all-party consent state for audio recording. However, the wiretapping law does not apply to public officials who have no expectation of privacy while acting in their official capacity as agents of the government.
In the audio portion of the video, the officials can be heard remarking that Gray is part of a group called “Photography Is Not a Crime”, that he’s sued the school board and won, and that if they’d barred him from attending or photographing the meeting, that he’d “be down to the courthouse.”
They even said that “it’s cheaper to settle” than to fight Gray.
But wouldn’t it be cheaper to simply abide by the public records law?
Let’s not forget these people educate our children.
The whole reason for Florida’s Sunshine laws is to allow the public to participate in meetings and limit the back room deals that seem to take place regardless of the state’s transparency laws.
Isn’t it sad that multiple public interest lawsuits are required just to exercise our basic Constitutional rights to free speech in America today?
They continued saying that if anything happened, they’d be sure to see it on YouTube, and boy were they right.
Joyner also complains about the threats and hate mail he receives after Gray posts these videos, so perhaps he is prepared this time around.
And he calls Gray “a dangerous man” with an “extensive criminal record,” even though Gray’s only arrests take place while exercising his First Amendment right to record.
And they never result in convictions.
Joyner also called Gray a “professional litigator” because “he sues for lack of access or for lack of getting public records.”
Gray wrote the commentary on the Youtube description:
Each year Florida Attorney General’s Office compiles a comprehensive guide known as the Government-in-the-Sunshine manual.
This manual is published each year at no taxpayer expense by the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.
Throughout the history of Florida’s open government, its courts have consistently supported the public’s right of access to governmental meetings and records.
As such, they also have been defining and redefining what a public record is and who is covered under the open meetings law. One area of public concern was whether or not the Legislature was covered under the open meetings requirements.
To address that concern, a Constitutional amendment was passed overwhelmingly by the voters in 1990 providing for open meetings in the legislative branch of government.
In 1991, a decision by the Florida Supreme Court raised questions which made it clear that the best way to ensure the public’s right of access to all three branches of government was to secure that right through the Florida Constitution.
The Attorney General’s Office then drafted a definitive constitutional amendment, which guaranteed continued openness in the state’s government and reaffirmed the application of open government to the legislative branch and expanded it to the judiciary.
This amendment passed in 1992.
Florida’s public officials have had a long time to learn to abide this important law, which is meant to protect the public’s right to know what their government is doing.
Now we know, some of them just wish the public would go away and let them collect their tax-funded salaries and pensions without our input.
Gray is not a serial litigant but a journalist who regularly encounters violations of Florida’s Sunshine Law, the First Amendment as well as numerous other civil rights violations.
In fact, you can hear the open frustration in Gray’s voice as he discusses the many failed Sunshine Meeting audits he encounters.
If you plan to try this in your local government offices, please take Jeff’s advice closely to heart: “Stay cool, Be polite, Assert Your Rights, and Always Film The Police.”