Photo by DAVID ALBERS
Gov. Rick Scott is about to sign a new law that will keep the public from seeing photos or videos of someone being killed.
We are guessing that most members of the public are saying, “Good, sign it governor. We don’t need to see such things.”
Then why are newspaper editors and Florida’s First Amendment Foundation asking Scott to use his veto?
To sell more newspapers?
That’s one answer we’ve heard.
But, is it really that easy? Is that really what’s behind the veto request?
Read on, then decide.
House Bill 411, which breezed through the state Legislature last month, creates a public records exemption for photographs, video and audio recordings that depict the killing of a person.
Modern technology prompted the drafting of the proposed law. These days there are cameras everywhere: at intersections, in parking lots, above public sidewalks, on school grounds and atop dashboards of police cars.
The likelihood that death and mayhem will be caught on tape grows each year.
Because most of these monitoring systems are owned and controlled by public agencies, what they record is — under Florida law — a public record, unless the Legislature passes an exemption.
H.B. 411 does that and includes some provisions designed to make the cloaking of public information more palatable.
Photographs, video and audio recordings of someone being killed — in a car wreck, an industrial accident or a crime — will be made available to a victim’s surviving spouse or some other next of kin upon request. The family can look at photos or view a recording, but they won’t be given a copy. They can look, but not keep.
There’s also a provision that allows members of the public to ask a judge to lift the exemption if they can argue there’s a strong public need. Bill supporters thought that would mollify the press.
So what’s the problem?
It’s not the myth about selling newspapers. Try to recall an example of a newspaper publishing a photo of someone who is dead or is about to be killed. You can count them on one hand — a dead Marine being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, a man falling from a World Trade Center tower on 9/11. Most, if not all, newspapers have a policy of not running photos of dead people or people about to die.
Editors know that you don’t sell more newspapers with gratuitous photos of death. You end up selling fewer and fewer from that day on.
And, it’s not because we might benefit somehow by putting death videos on our websites. We wouldn’t, though admittedly someone outside the news media — someone akin to a purveyor of porn — might.
That possibility is far less a danger to society, in our view, than restricting government oversight. And, that’s exactly what H.B. 411 does. It will make it more difficult for the public to determine what actually happened when death is involved.
It’s much easier to trust government when you have unfettered access to what government does. It’s how you hold government accountable.
We’ll use the case of Martin Anderson as Exhibit A.
He was 14-year-old boy assigned by juvenile court to one of those paramilitary boot camps in Florida after a run-in with the law. (He stole his grandmother’s car and some candy.) While exercising with the other youthful offenders he complained of dizziness, convulsed and died.
The medical examiner ruled the death was due to natural causes. Anderson had sickle cell anemia.
However, a videotape from a boot-camp surveillance camera showed that the physically distressed boy was mercilessly urged on by camp leaders and even had one of those ammonia caps waved under his nose to revive him. He was pushed to the brink and then well past it. When the videotape was released to the public, there was great outcry and protests in Tallahassee.
The case was reopened and another autopsy was performed. Death was caused by suffocation due to the action of government employees. A law was passed to close boot camps in Florida and manslaughter charges were filed.
That, we fear, would not have happened had H.B. 411 been law.
That’s why it needs to be vetoed.
Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.