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Florida Moves To Restrict Media Access To Stand Your Ground Case Records

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Rep. Matt Gaetz (Florida House of Representatives)
Rep. Matt Gaetz (Florida House of Representatives)

After a Tampa Bay Times' review of 200 cases that involved the controversial "Stand Your Ground" law found an "uneven application" and "shocking outcomes," one Florida lawmaker is seeking to impede the media's ability to scrutinize the law.

Earlier this month, state Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach) filed an amendment that would "severely limit access to court records in the self-defense cases," the Times' Michael van Sickler reports.

The amendment would allow those found innocent in a Stand Your Ground case to "apply for a certificate of eligibility to expunge the associated criminal history record."

Gaetz said his amendment was unrelated to the Times' Stand Your Ground investigation, the Associated Press reports. "The point is to ensure that someone who appropriately uses a Stand Your Ground defense doesn't have their life ruined by the use of that defense," he said.

Gaetz's amendment has sparked concern among journalists, Media Matters reports, who say the loss of access to public records could have damaging effects. Alongside statements from editors at the Miami Herald and Florida Times-Union are the opinions of staff who worked on the groundbreaking review by the Times:

"Closing records and putting controversial cases that involve violence into the dark is a bad idea, it is against democracy," said Neil Brown, Times editor and vice president. "This would have inhibited our work further. Our work was done based on court records as well as the stories of the incidents when they occurred."

The Times coverage was named a finalist for the Online News Association's Knight Award for Public Service and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism's Taylor Award for Fairness in Journalism. The investigation has played a key role in informing other outlets' coverage of cases relating to Stand Your Ground statutes.

It utilized hundreds of court and arrest records to reveal that the law was being interpreted in many different ways and being applied without a uniform approach, according to Kris Hundley, one of the three Times reporters who worked on the project.

"If those were expunged, I don't know how you would ever do any kind of meaningful look back at the law," Hundley said. "I think it was important because it gave people a sense of how it was applied across the state, how judges made different decisions faced with similar cases and the wide variety of cases in which it was employed. It showed the law was being expanded to far beyond what the legislators anticipated and (was) applied unevenly."

Marion Hammer, a former NRA national president who founded and heads the organization's Florida chapter, said the amendment is about protecting individuals who defend themselves within the law.

"It's overreach on the media's part to think they need to know everything about everybody's life," Hammer, who personally crafted the proposal that would become Stand Your Ground, told the Times/Herald. "The media wants to know this so they can create news. Privacy is an important thing in America. When people are wronged it should be repaired, and it shouldn't be anybody's business."

The bill to which the amendment is attached -- which would extend Stand Your Ground immunity to those who fire warning shots during a confrontation -- has sailed through the Florida House.

The warning shot measure has enjoyed some bipartisan support in light of the high-profile case of Marissa Alexander. The Jacksonville woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she said was a warning shot into her own ceiling during a confrontation with her estranged husband. (An appeals court has ruled Alexander will get a new trial.)

But some Democrats are unhappy with the proposed expansion of Stand Your Ground. One local lawmaker asserted that the law has harmed black residents, and the Times study found that shooters who cited Stand Your Ground were more likely to prevail when the victim was black. Rep. Alan Williams (D-Tallahassee), who filed a repeal of Stand Your Ground last fall, has argued instead, "Don't make this about color, make this about what's right and wrong. Make this about life and death."

Gaetz has already encountered resistance from Democrats, including Williams, over Stand Your Ground. Last fall, Florida Republicans seemed to concede to public opposition when they agreed to hold hearings on the law. Gaetz, who was appointed to chair the meetings, announced before the hearings began that he did not "support changing one damn comma of the 'Stand Your Ground' law," and characterized any changes as "reactionary and dangerous" and protestors as "uninformed."

"So much for an objective review of the law's unintended consequences," wrote the Orlando Sentinel's editorial board at the time.

The Senate's version of the warning shot bill is expected to see a vote this week. Here are some of the cases Gaetz doesn't want you -- or us -- to see:

Florida's Shocking Stand Your Ground Acquittals
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