Florida’s constitutional guarantee of open government and the public’s right to know got a booster shot from a three-judge appeals panel in Tallahassee.
The court ruled in favor of a group of newspapers and television stations that argued the National Collegiate Athletic Association, based in Indianapolis, has no special exemption when it comes to Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine laws.
Earlier this year, the NCAA handed out sanctions to Florida State University’s athletic teams in a self-reported academic cheating case. When the public university appealed, the NCAA electronically shared pages and pages of documents related to why and how its decision was reached on the sanctions — with the demand that the university keep those documents secret.
NCAA attorneys said the digital documents were NCAA business, not the public’s business.
The news media cried foul and were joined by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum. Placing the university on probation and taking away victories from its football team — two of the sanctions handed down by the NCAA — are the public’s business.
The NCAA still has time to appeal, and if it does the case could eventually reach the Florida Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the documents in question are still being withheld. If no appeal is filed, the information will finally be placed in the sunshine.
Exactly what these specific documents contain is now only a side issue. The bigger picture is the appeal court’s affirmation of the public’s right to know.
Had the NCAA been able to circumvent Florida’s public-records law when it claimed a special exemption because of the way the digital information was provided, a dangerous precedent would have been set — a precedent that would have provided a road map for others wishing to keep the public’s business in the shadows and out of the sunshine.