Judge rejects bid by First Amendment Foundation, media companies, to block FL Cabinet meeting in Israel

Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter. MathKnight, Wikimedia Commons photo

Update: Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey has declined to block the meeting between the governor and Cabinet planned for Wednesday in Jerusalem. Dempsey cited the fact that the First Amendment Foundation and media companies couldn’t serve the governor and Cabinet members with a summons. “The court declines to enter any emergency relief on an ex parte basis,” Dempsey wrote – meaning  absent the defendants. The First Amendment Foundation’s  attorney, Gregg Thomas of Thomas & Locicero in Tampa, said he’ll ask the judge to reconsider on the grounds that “it’s proper to proceed with injunctive relief without service on the defendants because the circumstances are unique.” Failing that, the media organizations will seek to void any action the governor and Cabinet might take during the Jerusalem meeting, Thomas said.

The Florida First Amendment Foundation and four news organizations asked a state trial judge Tuesday to block Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet from going through with plans to convene later this week at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.

In a lawsuit filed in Leon County Circuit Court, the organizations argue the meeting would violate Florida’s Sunshine Law, which requires that the public’s business be conducted in public.

“The meeting is being held over 6,000 miles away from the citizens of Florida, and in a secured U.S. State Department facility for which the public does not have ready access (indeed, due to embassy security concerns, the public is being restricted from attending and the news media accompanying Florida’s government delegation to Israel are being severely restricted in how they can cover the meeting),” the complaint argues.

“Holding a meeting at this distance in such a facility violates the constitutional and statutory rights of Florida citizens (and the news media) to personally observe the workings of, and for the public to offer comment to, their state’s highest officials,” it says.

“This court must, therefore, issue an injunction preventing the meeting from taking place as scheduled. Alternatively, if this matter is not heard before the meeting occurs, this court must issue an order voiding the meeting and declaring it in violation of applicable law.”

In addition to the foundation, the plaintiffs include the Gannett Co. Inc., Gatehouse Media LLC, The Miami Herald Media Co., and Times Publishing Co., publisher of the Tampa Bay Times. It names DeSantis and the Cabinet, plus the individual members of the Cabinet – Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried.

“Other news organizations will be added,” foundation Barbara Petersen said via email.

The plaintiffs acted for a court hearing within 24 hours.

The complaint cites Article I Section 24 of the Florida Constitution, which guarantees public access to public meetings and documents; and Section 286.011 of the Florida Statutes, which provides criminal penalties for violations.

“This action concerns an upcoming, intentional violation of the open meetings provisions of the Florida Constitution and the ‘Sunshine Law’ by the Cabinet regarding a meeting set to occur in Jerusalem, Israel, at 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 29, 2019 (Jerusalem time),” the document says.

The governor’s office has argued the meeting would not violate the law because it is for “information gathering” purposes.

“But, even crediting this view, the law is clear that ‘information gathering’ sessions fall within the Sunshine Law’s requirements,” the complaint says.

The planned Cabinet meeting is incidental to the business-development mission the governor and Cabinet members – plus state lawmakers and mayors, academic and religious leaders, business figures and lobbyists, and state agency chiefs and ranking staff – undertook Saturday. They are scheduled to return for Florida on Friday.

DeSantis, who harbors ambitions to be this country’s most pro-Israel governor, has presented the Cabinet meeting as an opportunity to cement the Florida-Israel relationship. Cabinet members were eager to accompany him. Fried married the expedition with a trade mission she’d already planned on her own.

The written meeting agenda includes an invocation, the Pledge of Allegiance, a discussion of the Florida-Israel relationship, and presentations involving “victims of terrorism,” water quality, and emergency management. A disclaimer asserts: “This agenda does not involve the composition of any collegial body consisting of the governor and Cabinet as a board, commission, or otherwise.”

Nevertheless, those topics are of interest to the public and foreseeably could come before the governor and Cabinet for action later, the complaint argues. “Fact-finding or informational meetings attended by members of a public body constitute meetings under the Sunshine Law. The right of direct public access attaches to such meetings,” it says.

Moreover, Jerusalem is outside the jurisdictional limits of Florida, more than 6,000 miles away; Floridians lacking a valid passport can’t attend; and Floridians of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim descent would face special barriers, the foundation argues.

Additionally, the embassy meeting will be open only to people specifically authorized to attend, and reporters will be banned from using laptops or cellphones, as they could in the state Capitol, it added. Livestreaming the gathering via the Florida Channel, as planned, “is not a legally permissible alternative to allowing the public direct access to the meeting,” the complaint says.

“By intending to proceed with the meeting, the Cabinet and its co-defendant members are willfully violating the law. The public is being willfully denied their constitutional and statutory right to attend the meeting, offer public comment, and otherwise monitor the official actions of the Cabinet.”

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