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For two weeks at the end of February, reporters from 31 news organizations, including the Chiefland Citizen (Levy Newspaper Group), participated in a project with the Florida Press Association to determine the availability or records from Florida's clerks and court offices in all of the state's 67 counties.
In each request, reporters asked to view records from two civil cases and two criminal cases. Of the 268 files requested, according to FPA, 136 cases were able to be viewed in hard copy immediately. In 132 cases, records could not be viewed or there was a delay in seeing them.
In Levy County, Chiefland Citizen reporter Mark Scohier was not able to immediately view any of the four complete hard copy files requested due to the need to redact certain information. State, county and city officials often redact, or black out, sensitive information such as the name of a minor child or a person's Social Security or driver's license number.
Scohier was, however, allowed to view the redacted files on a computer, though it took the clerks about 20 minutes in total to remove certain information. Scohier was told he could see the hard copies but only after giving 24-hour notice, so clerks would have enough time to perform their redaction.
Throughout the state, delays in seeing records varied. Some reporters in other counties were told they would hear from the clerk after files had been redacted but were never contacted. Some reporters in other places were also not given an answer on how long it would take to view files, though, for most, according to FPA, the wait was under an hour.
In 53 cases in Florida, the reporters were asked to identify himself or herself, though state law does not require anyone to oblige such requests, nor are they required to state why they wish to view the records.
In Levy County, Scohier was not asked to identify himself, nor was there any inquiry as to why he wanted to view the records, which is similar to 199 other cases in the state.
Earlier this week Chiefland Citizen and Cedar Key Beacon Editor Lou Elliott Jones in a posted on the Citizen website:
The week of March 10 - 17 is Sunshine Week, and the Levy Newspaper Group, comprised of The Chiefland Citizen, the Cedar Key Beacon and the Tri-County Bulletin, want to remind all patriotic Floridians, especially in Levy County, that it's their right to know what government is up to.
Too often, folks think this is about a newspaper's nosey staff trying to find out "other people's business." But the press has no more rights than a citizen to learn what the government is doing on one's behalf.
The Levy Newspaper Group takes it as a duty to exercise our rights as citizens to ask questions that folks might not know to ask or fear asking of their public leaders.
We prize our freedoms, and the right to know what are government is up to is enshrined in our state constitution.
We pledge not to fail in that measure of civic duty.
Lou Elliott Jones
Chiefland Citizen/Cedar Key Beacon