HomeLegislationWe found a loop-hole in Florida's University President privacy law and they...

We found a loop-hole in Florida’s University President privacy law and they won’t like it

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Florida’s new law that keeps secret the identities of presidential applicants to the state’s public four-year and community colleges until a search’s final stages, has been a hot topic amid the publicity around the Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) search for a new President.

Proponents on the law argued that publicly naming presidential contenders dissuades those from applying, as their current employment may be jeopardized. Those opposed said it is an unnecessary measure that obscures search processes, hiding the process from the public eye.

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FAU made headlines when they announced the 3 finalists from their pool of over 60 applicants for the position. Notably, State Representative Randy Fine was not among the list of extremely qualified finalists. Fine was all but promised the job in exchange for dropping his race for Florida Senate. He still has not officially suspended his campaign, however, according to his own campaign finances, Fine has not raised a single penny since he publicly announced that Governor DeSantis asked him personally to apply for the job. Fine’s last contributions date back to early March, 2023. Each report since, has been $0.00 for both his election campaign account, and his PAC, Friends of Randy Fine.

After not making the list, the process was suddenly suspended by the Florida Board of Governors (BOG), which oversees the Board of Trustees for each school’s selection process. No matter who the school selects for the position, the BOG, almost entirely appointed by Governor DeSantis, must confirm the selection. It’s widely believed that Fine has called for interference from the State to intervene on his behalf for not making the cut over the better qualified candidates.

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Each candidate was required to submit a letter of interest (LOI), as part of the application process, essentially stating their qualifications for the job, and why they believed they were the best fit. The 3 finalists LOI’s, as well as their CV’s became public once they were announced as the finalists. All other applicants, remain confidential according to the new law.

Here’s the Catch

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The law is being exploited which even its author former Senator Brandes confirms, We submitted a public records request to FAU for a copy of Randy Fine’s LOI. Rachelle Hollingsworth, FAU’s Public Records Specialist responded.

Rachelle Hollingsworth’s response that Fla. Stat. Section 1004.098 “makes any personal identifying information of an applicant;..[is] confidential and exempt from public records law,” is 100% correct. Accordingly, we amended our request to “the letters of interest” of all applicants that made the second to final round with their personal identifying information redacted.”

The statute referenced is very clear, and also very specific. It specifically states “[A]ny personal identifying information of an applicant for president of a state university or a Florida College System institution held by a state university or a Florida College System institution is confidential and exempt from s. 119.07(1) and s. 24(a), Art. I of the State Constitution.” (Emphasis added.)

Florida Statute is also very specific in its definition of “personal identifying information.” Florida Statutes Section 817.568 provides the definition of “personal identifying information”:

Essentially, by law, the only thing that is exempt and confidential is the personal information defined by law. All other information appears to be subject to a public record request as “public,”because the law does not define it as protected. Therefore, an applicant’s LOI, with the personal identifying information – as defined by law – redacted, should be public record, and not exempt. In other words, as with many public records, the documents themselves are not exempt for public disclosure, but at times, some of the information contained within the documents are exempt from disclosure, hence the purpose of redaction.

The often lengthy LOI’s of such high caliber applicants, are often quite informative and comprehensive. Because they usually containspecific employment history and experience, along with timelines, it is easy to deduce with a simple Google search the name of the potential candidate.

For example, below is a copy of finalist, Vice Admiral Sean Buck, the current Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy. According to the statute, the only information that should be confidential, should he not make the finals, would be the information you see at the very top of the letter. Nothing else contained in the letter qualifies as “personal identifying information,”according to the law. One can see how easy it would be to identify this individual with simply the remaining information.

We are still awaiting a response to our amended requests from FAU and the Florida Board of Governors, wherein we outline this discovery. We have also reached out to the sponsor of the legislation, former Senator Jeff Brandes, and are awaiting his response. In the meantime, we encourage all other media outlets to continue to seeking these records in order to spread some sunshine on this shady process.

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