In the recap of his acquittal for videotaping police, Carlos Miller includes this paragraph among the many offering his appreciation to those who aided him in the cause:
I also wouldn’t have been able to do it without the Chandler brothers, specifically Robert, who was able to pry public records from the Miami-Dade Police Department when Major Nancy Perez was refusing to provide requested public records to [Carlos’ lawyer, Arnold] Trevilla.
The Chandler Brothers? A couple of guys in Florida doing something both small and huge, and without which, the promise of law would be a sham.
There is a tricky little law that exists in one permutation or another across the country, but the purpose of which is clear. It’s supposed to prevent government from hiding its dirty little secrets from the public. Freedom of Information, it’s called, and it is supposed to require government, upon request, to provide us with inside information about the things they do behind closed doors. Great law, right?
Except it’s mostly honored in the breech. Make a request and maybe you will get a response. Maybe not. Maybe you will get everything you’ve requested. Maybe only what they feel like giving you. Maybe you will just be ignored altogether. Maybe they will make up some official sounding excuse and deny your request.
On the whole, there are two things that are clear about Freedom of Information laws. They haven’t fulfilled their promise, and when they don’t, it’s up to you, dear citizen, to force the government to comply. Therein lies a huge, often insurmountable problem. And that’s where the Chandler Brothers come in.
One of the most well established principles of open government law in Florida, is that, with very few exceptions, we have the right to inspect, photograph and copy public records and to attend open meetings without having to explain why we want access, only that we do. That principle is also one of the most abused.
Let’s face facts: for most people, denial, whether express or tacit, is where the fight ends. You’re not equipped to sue over it, and the cost of retaining counsel isn’t worth the gamble. For lawyers, taking on a cause that puts you on the front page of the New York Times with a victory that will be remembered throughout the ages may be worth the effort. Getting a locality, a police department, to comply with its Freedom of Information laws is about as small potatoes as it gets. There will be no parades in your honor, no statues of you in the town square.
It’s the tiny acts, however, that makes the promise of laws that purport to keep the government honest work. This is why the efforts of the Chandler Brothers are so valuable, even if unknown and underappreciated. This is why I’m offering my capital by way of this post to show them the respect they’ve earned.
They’ve become experts in fighting for disclosure, taking on the little fights that make the law happen. They were a critical part of uncovering evidence in Carlos’ case, but just as importantly, remain a perpetual threat that keeps the government somewhat honest. What they do inures to everyone’s benefit.
And they don’t do it without risk to themselves.
Dating back to 1889, public officials in Florida have had a long tradition of trying to impose their own set of rules to open government access. Some officials have tried to impose rules about who has access. Others have tried to impose their own set of rules about why folks have access. Both are unlawful.
If public officials can demand that members of the public identify themselves as a condition of open government access, then those officials will be able to filter what information (records and meetings) are available to citizens. We have collectively decided that unfiltered information works best to minimize waste and corruption and to increase public awareness of key issues in government.
What the Chandlers have come to learn is that when they show up at a police station to make a request, they are regularly subject to suspicion for the offense of exercising the rights given them under law.
For no other reason than having asked to inspect the most innocuous public records imaginable – visitor’s logs – Robert and I have been investigated by numerous law enforcement agencies.
Based upon a public records request made to FDLE using the criteria of “Robert Chandler”, “Joel Chandler” or tag number “X41977” (Robert’s tag and the vehicle in which we were traveling to do our in-person-audits) numerous LEOs accessed FCIC during our road trips.
After all, what could be more suspicious and seditious to a cop’s mind that someone investigating them? And yet, the Chandler Brothers ignore the intentionally chilling effect of making themselves the target of police scrutiny to assure that public information remains free?
There’s no glory in doing this. There are no fabulous riches, now or down the road. It’s just another cause, but one that makes the small laws happen where they would just be ignored or denied otherwise.
I applaud the efforts of Robert and Joel Chandler, and want to offer some well-deserved recognition. Just as Carlos has become the patron saint of photographers and videographers capturing the police in the act despite their efforts to stop them, the Chandlers do the same in Florida to prevent Freedom of Information from falling into a black hole.
Perhaps you might want to thank them as well, maybe even contribute to their cause, as their efforts serve all of us in keeping some small measure of integrity in the law and government. Thanks, Robert and Joel Chandler, for doing something that may be small in each instance, but huge in its importance to the rest of us.