From the Legal Hotline (877-NEWS-LAW)
Coronaviris, Bingo and more in today’s Legal Hotline Recap
Q. Our city council has announced that its meeting tonight will be limited to no more than 10 people in the room, and they will not allow our reporter in. There’s no video or audio access; we’re being offered only a recording afterward. Our plan right now is to show up, ask to be admitted, video the entire encounter, accept the offered recording of the meeting, and report the hell out of it. Advice?
A. Many counties and cities have issued business shut down/stay at home orders for non-essential business due to the corona virus, however, most, if not all, specifically exempt media operations as “essential.” Here is the list of orders being compiled by Shullman Fugate firm. https://www.shullmanfugate.com/other-news/2020/03/24/alert-florida-press-permitted-to-operate-as-usual-during-covid-19-outbreak/. So I think excluding the press is contrary to these orders. Further, while there have been orders waiving state law requirements for quorums and where/how meetings can be held, none have waived any sunshine law requirements. Thus, any SL violations by local government can still subject them to a court voiding actions taken. Although the city council in this case can impose corona virus prevention measures like social distancing, capping room attendance, requiring masks, etc., they should not be able to single out reporters and bar them from entering.
Q. As a follow up to the above, as it turns out, there apparently was a misunderstanding (at fairly high levels of city government). My reporter had called the city to check that the meeting was still happening. He spoke to the city clerk, who told him the meeting was on, but he would not be admitted. After my information from you, I emailed the city manager to let her know that council actions would likely be void under the circumstances. She called me immediately, very upset about the information my reporter had been given, and assuring me that he, and other members of the public, would be admitted, and saying it was never her intent to close the meeting.
A. Great news–thank you for the update!
Q. Are bingo-type games published in the paper games of chance? We plan to publish bingo cards as part of a game promotion that can be submitted in return for gift cards to winners. What requirements should we be aware of?
A. We asked our gaming attorney in Tampa (Susan Tillotson with Thomas & LoCicero firm) who advised as follows. The big picture answer is that this can definitely be a game of chance and a lottery without an AME (alternative method of entry) i.e., must have a free method of entry available. The smaller picture is that such a game would need some basic rules addressing material terms, as few are apparent. Also, depending on the actual end-date, the aggregate amount could trigger registration requirements. To be clear, her comments are just the immediate big ones that jump out – there are other less obvious issues such also calculation of odds and their disclosure, etc., but these others are the overall “deal-breaker” issues.
If you want to move forward, you may want to talk to Susan directly, as she has the expertise. I can give you her contact info. if interested.
Q. Local media groups would like FPA to write a letter to a federal judge in the Northern District of Florida asking him to consider reversing his decision to close access to a hearing. Here is an article: https://www.nwfdailynews.com/news/20200410/coronavirus-motion-hearing-in-waltons-federal-beach-closure-case-closed-to-public
A. Yes, we can do that. Our retained attorneys in Tampa, Thomas & LoCicero, have a lot of experience in the various federal courts and with the federal rules of court and we have asked them to weigh in here. In response, rather than filing a formal motion, they have written a letter on our behalf and other media organizations opposing the action. Here is the excellent letter Jim McGuire drafted and sent to the judge.
In response to the letter, the court realized that due to an initial miscommunication, members of the press and public were initially told that they would be unable to have access to the hearing. However, that initial miscommunication was subsequently clarified, and members of both the press and public would now be permitted to listen in on the hearing via telephone conference. Apparently, this had not been conveyed to everyone and the court apologized for that but said “rest assured that the press and public were able to dial in to yesterday’s hearing and listen to the entire proceeding.” So, there should be no problem with access going forward.
Q. A source gave me the phone number of someone who supposedly has the coronavirus. The patient is apparently being cared for by a person who works at a local school. I don’t know how the source got the patient’s contact info, but it was probably from a friend of a friend. As far as I know, my source doesn’t have the patient’s permission to disclose the person’s name or phone number but only knows he works at the local school.
I propose that I call the number and respectfully ask the patient to speak about the situation. If the patient declines, I won’t press the issue, and I won’t disclose the patient’s identity. Is there anything legally risky in that situation?
A. There do not appear to be any purely legal issues here. If you do as you suggest and call the patient, it should be fine. However, if the patient won’t speak, I would be careful about what you report regarding the person who has been treating him or her. In particular, you would have to be careful and use what I am sure are your high journalistic standards in reporting on the identity of the caregiver, and his/her connection to the coronavirus patient and status working at the school.