Note: This page covers information specific to Florida. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
The Florida Constitution and the Florida Sunshine Law (full text) provide the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level. The law entitles you to notice of these meetings and gives you the ability to inspect and copy meeting minutes. Florida's law relating to open meetings is unusually complex. You should consult the Florida Attorney General's Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: Florida for detailed information.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
The Florida Sunshine Law covers any "public collegial body." The law defines "public collegial body" as: "any board or commission of any state agency or authority or of any agency or authority of any county, municipal corporation, or political subdivision." Fla. Stat. § 286.011. In addition, the Florida Constitution's open meetings provision applies to the meetings of "any collegial public body of the executive branch of state government or of any collegial public body of a county, municipality, school district, or special district." Fla. Const. art. I, § 24(b). The word "collegial" means having more than one member.
The coverage of these two provisions is extremely broad. According to an FAQ published by the Florida Attorney General, "[v]irtually all state and local collegial [i.e., multi-member] public bodies are covered by the open meetings requirements with the exception of the judiciary and the state Legislature which has its own constitutional provision relating to access." The State Commissions and Boards page on the Florida Government Information Locator lists many of the state boards and commissions covered by the law. On the local level, the Sunshine Act covers county and city commissions, school boards, and planning and zoning boards, among other things. It does not apply to federal government bodies.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by Florida law, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute an "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). Under the Florida Sunshine Law, a "meeting" is any gathering of two or more members of a public body to discuss or take action regarding official business or policy. The term also applies to information-gathering and fact-finding sessions called by the public body. According to the Attorney General, "[t]he law, in essence, is applicable to any gathering, whether formal or casual, of two or more members of the same board or commission to discuss some matter on which foreseeable action will be taken by the public board or commission."
Telephone conversations and email between members of a board, commission, or other multi-member public body may qualify as a "meeting" under the law. If members use telephonic or electronic communication simply to communicate factual information and do not exchange comments and views on subjects requiring group action, however, then the open meetings requirements do not apply. See Fla. Stat. § 286.011
What Are Your Rights?
The Florida Constitution and Sunshine Act give "the public" the right to attend the meetings of public collegial bodies, with exceptions for closed meetings discussed below. Florida law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend.
Florida law also recognizes a public right to comment during open meetings, but the public body holding the meeting may adopt reasonable rules and regulations to ensure the orderly conduct of meetings.
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, Florida law requires covered boards, commissions, and other multi-member public bodies to give "reasonable notice" of their meetings to the public and the press. The law does not set out a specific time in advance before which a public body must give notice. Any amount of time will do if it is reasonable under the circumstances. The notice generally should include the time and place of the meeting and an agenda of the items to be discussed. The appropriate method of giving notice depends on the circumstances. In some instances, posting notice on a website or issuing a press release may be sufficient, but publication in local newspapers of general circulation may be required for matters of great public concern. You should check the websites of the Florida public bodies that you are interested in for notices and contact them to see if you can sign up for a mailing list or other targeted mechanism for delivering notice.
Minutes and Recordings
The Florida Sunshine Act requires public collegial bodies to record minutes of their meetings and to make them available to the public for inspection and copying. They may, but need not, make audio recordings of their meetings. If a public body chooses to do so, however, the sound recording is a public record that you can access just like ordinary minutes.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see Florida Recording Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
Under Florida law, a public body may hold a closed meeting or session when it is dealing with certain subject areas, for which the State Legislature has provided exemptions to the open-meetings requirements. Some exceptions include meetings with a public body's attorney over pending litigation, strategy discussions between a government body and its chief executive officer prior to collective bargaining negotiations, certain hearings involving minors, and meetings involving probable cause determinations or considering confidential records. Unfortunately, the state legislature has passed over two-hundred exemptions and they are not located in one specific statutory provision. For more information on these exemptions, see the Citizen's Guide to Government in the Sunshine and the Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
If you know in advance that a meeting will be closed, and you believe that closure would violate the Florida Sunshine Law or Florida Constitution, you should make a written demand for access on the chairperson of the public body or its attorney. The demand should remind the public body of its obligations under the open meetings laws and ask it to identify the statutory exception it is relying on to close the meeting. If the public body refuses your demand for access, you can sue in state circuit court. If you are successful, a court may order the public body to make the meeting in question open to the public.
You may also sue to have a court invalidate past actions of public bodies taken in violation of the open meetings laws. The State Attorney's Office in the relevant judicial circuit can provide you some assistance if you choose to pursue litigation, although it will not handle your case. If you decide to sue, there may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation. If you win in a lawsuit against a public body for violation of the Sunshine Law, you can recover your attorneys' fees. On the other hand, if a court finds that your lawsuit is frivolous (i.e., has absolutely no legal merit) or was filed in bad faith, then it may force you to pay the attorneys' fees of the public body. This would not happen unless your legal claim were utterly and obviously without any merit.
If you show up at a meeting and the public body tries to exclude you from it, you do not have time to get a court order. On page twelve of its Citizen's Guide to Government in the Sunshine, the Brechner Center provides a useful script that may keep you from being excluded:
Florida Statute 286.011, the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, requires that all meetings of state or local governmental boards or commissions be open to the public unless there is a specific statutory exemption. If I am ordered to leave (or forbidden to enter) this meeting, I ask that you advise me of the statutory authority for your action. Otherwise, I must insist on my right to attend this meeting.
If the public body in question still insists on excluding you, you have no choice but to leave in an orderly fashion. You may then consider filing a lawsuit.