Florida journalists are speaking out after their state's legislature passed a proposal making it far more difficult to report on cases involving the controversial Stand Your Ground law.
Florida's Stand Your Ground law has repeatedly made national headlines because of its role in the deaths of teenagers Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. On Thursday, the Florida House passed an NRA-backed proposal that includes an amendment which would expand the Stand Your Ground defense to those who fire warning shots to deter potential attacks. The bill also allows for the expunging of records in Stand Your Ground cases where charges were eventually dropped. The bill is now headed to the Florida Senate.
As the bill makes its way through the legislative process, top Sunshine State journalists are worried that making these records unavailable to the public will damage their ability to do proper journalism.
Among those speaking out are top reporters and editors at the Tampa Bay Times, which conducted a lengthy 2012 investigation into Stand Your Ground that won industry praise and raised concerns about the applications of the law, including the fact that in nearly four out of every five cases involving a Stand Your Ground defense, homicides were deemed justified if the victim was black.
"Closing records and putting controversial cases that involve violence into the dark is a bad idea, it is against democracy," said Neil Brown, Times editor and vice president. "This would have inhibited our work further. Our work was done based on court records as well as the stories of the incidents when they occurred."
The Times coverage was named a finalist for the Online News Association's Knight Award for Public Service and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism's Taylor Award for Fairness in Journalism. The investigation has played a key role in informing other outlets' coverage of cases relating to Stand Your Ground statutes.
It utilized hundreds of court and arrest records to reveal that the law was being interpreted in many different ways and being applied without a uniform approach, according to Kris Hundley, one of the three Times reporters who worked on the project.
"If those were expunged, I don't know how you would ever do any kind of meaningful look back at the law," Hundley said. "I think it was important because it gave people a sense of how it was applied across the state, how judges made different decisions faced with similar cases and the wide variety of cases in which it was employed. It showed the law was being expanded to far beyond what the legislators anticipated and (was) applied unevenly."
Chris Davis, Times investigations editor who oversaw the project's nine weeks of reporting, agreed.
"I think it would make it impossible to do the kind of analysis that we did to see what was going on in these kinds of cases," he said about the proposed amendment, adding that the investigation "definitely brought a lot of information to the public that had not been available anywhere else."
None of the Times journalists believed the proposed restrictions amounted to retaliation for their work, but Hundley hinted that legislators had to know how the proposed limitations would affect reporting: "I don't know that I would call it retaliation... but we relied quite heavily on court documents, those were really crucial to making our case."
And Times journalists are not the only ones speaking out against the potential law. Other Florida newsroom leaders are opposing the new restrictions.
"Like most media organizations, The Miami Herald applauds those efforts by lawmakers to make public records open and available," said Sergio Bustos, statehouse editor for the Herald. "This particular bill would do just the opposite by limiting the media's access."
Frank Denton, editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, offered a similar view.
"Journalists do not want records to be expunged," he said in an interview. "Just about any limitation on the availability of public records hurts journalists' ability to report the news."
The below graphic from the Times investigation shows how the law has repeatedly been used successfully to help people avoid punishment and "freed killers even though most of their victims were unarmed."