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Florida Senate Committee Meet In Secret

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posted on Mar, 7 2003 @ 12:17 AM
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Link to article in the Gainesville Sun
Article published Mar 6, 2003
Senators to meet in secret

TALLAHASSEE - Breaking a long tradition of open government and citing a new need for secrecy because of terrorist attacks, a Florida Senate committee will meet today in a secret session to review a state security system.

Acting under Senate rules passed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, agreed to close a meeting of the Senate Home Defense, Public Security and Ports Committee, a 10-member panel that today will review an unspecified security system at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

It is believed to be the first officially sanctioned secret meeting held by Florida Legislature since 1967, when four reporters were physically ejected from the Senate chamber after protesting a secret session.

"This is not an easy decision," King said. But he said he agreed to it at the request of FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore.

King said he initially sought to have a designated "pool" reporter follow the committee during what is expected to be an hour-and-a-half briefing at the FDLE complex, located several miles east of the Capitol. But he ultimately agreed with Moore's contention that the security system could be compromised if it was publicized.

"We're really fearful of the corruption of it," King said.

King acknowledged that the senators on the panel had not undergone any special security clearances. He said there was nothing to prevent them from talking about it later, although he assumed they would use discretion.

"The 'loose lips sink ships' syndrome is back," he said.

King said he would not invoke the secrecy rule on a regular basis.

"I can guarantee you this is going to be an exception much more than any kind of rule," he said.

King said lawmakers approved about $1.5 million for the system this year and he expects the FDLE to request more funding for the next budget year.

The secret committee meeting immediately drew critics, who questioned the legality of the closure and expressed concern about the trend it could set.

"Secret meetings are an anathema to Florida government," said Larry Spalding of the American Civil Liberties Union.

He said it was troubling that the decision to close the meeting could be made by one individual, the Senate president, without any opportunity to have the decision appealed or reviewed.

"Jim King is an honorable person, but you have established a precedent, a very bad precedent," Spalding said.

He also said the secret committee meeting could lead to more secrecy in Tallahassee.

"We know from a vast federal experience that once you start giving government the opportunity to say this is national security, this is something that needs to be kept private, the envelope continues to spread and spread," he said.

Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, questioned the constitutionality of the Senate rule, which was passed under former Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton, that allows meetings to be closed where issues involve "security, espionage, sabotage, attack and other acts of terrorism."

She said it conflicts with open-government provisions in the constitution.

"The question is whether the rule is constitutional," Petersen said. "It is our position, it isn't." But she said the rule has yet to be challenged in court.

Gary Fineout of the Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.




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