From the Legal Hotline (1-877-NEWS-LAW)

From the Legal Hotline (1-877-NEWS-LAW)

Q. My insurance agent wanted me to find out if there is a statute of limitations on liability suits against newspapers. We’re renewing our publisher’s liability policy and he says we could save a little if we could knock off past years after a certain time. Any ideas?

A. Yes, actions for libel or slander must be commenced within two years. s. 95.11(4).

Q. Our state just legalized recreational marijuana and we are trying to understand the post office’s take on putting marijuana ads in the mail. One member’s lawyer said that in Florida, where medical marijuana has been legal for some time, some post offices have been delivering papers with ads for cannabis shops and others seem to have flagged it. Do you have any guidelines in your state for advertising cannabis and the associated paraphernalia? My members believe this could be a new revenue source, but are concerned about the postal permit

A. We asked Tonda Rush at the National Newspaper Association to weigh in on this since they are experts in postal regulation as well as other issues. Tonda indicates that USPS believes federal law makes these ads technically illegal. They do not stop the mail, but they may be reported to the Inspection Service. But she has heard of no enforcement actions. There have been congressional riders stopping the enforcement but with the continuing resolutions going on and on, the reliability of these staying in force is an issue.

And, before closing, we would ask you to consider joining NNA. Their fees are quite low and in addition to many other resources, Tonda and others on staff can answer questions like these quickly and accurately.

Q. I requested information from a community college regarding a current/former employee who is listed on the college website as working in one of its departments. Specifically, I asked for the date of initial employment, current position, current salary, date and type of each promotion, demotion, transfer, separation, or other change in position classification.

They responded by stating that Florida’s public records law is not a general information law but rather, a records law, and, as such, the college only provides records responsive to a request. They then attached the only records they said were responsive to the request. They also offered to provide the employee’s personnel file or communications about her employment if requested. None of the records, however, contain the information about the employee’s current title and salary. Do you have any tips you can give me to actually obtain at least her current title and salary, if not other items in my initial request?

A. Salary and other information relating to compensation is subject to disclosure. However, a custodian is not required to give out information from the records of his or her office. So here, the open records law would not require the college to create a document or produce an employee to answer questions regarding the salary and other information regarding employees.

On the other hand, the employee’s personnel records should be open to public inspection and copying unless there is an express exemption. The college seems to recognize this when is says you can obtain a “copy of the employee’s personnel file or communications about her employment.” My recommendation is that you simply reframe your request as one for public records. It’s not clear to me if the single document they provided is the only one that contains the information you requested.

Maybe you could specifically request any personnel files and other documents relating to the employee’s employment (over the last year?) including positions, salary, promotions, demotions, transfers, separations, or other changes in position classification. I would include a time frame because it appears from the employee’s LinkedIn page that she has been at the college for quite some time and if they can charge you a per page fee for copies.

Here is a rather long form that gives you a better idea how the requests are made. You probably don’t need all that language. If they do withhold any records, they need to cite the exemption.

Q. We have a 16-year-old student who would like to write sports stories and take photos for us as a paid correspondent. Are there any red flags that you see with that?

A. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets wage, hours worked, and safety requirements for minors (individuals under age 18) working in jobs. The rules vary depending upon the age of the minor and the job involved. As a general rule, the FLSA sets 14 years old as the minimum age for employment and limits the number of hours worked by minors under the age of 16. Also, the FLSA generally prohibits the employment of a minor in work declared hazardous. So, I don’t see any immediate issues.

Q. This is an oldie for sure, but it has come up again. Is it necessary for us to continue to use “advertising supplement” on inserts for purposes of the sales tax exemption? Is it a rule that inserts have the “advertising supplement” verbiage added to inserts? Does it apply to all except pre-prints? Or do they have to put that verbiage on themselves?

A. The Fla. DOR rule (12A-1.008) still requires labelling of inserts to be considered a component part of the newspaper and thus entitled to the relevant sales tax exemption. If the language is not present, it’s considered a taxable sale and the newspaper needs to charge the customer sales tax on non-marked insets plus a penalty. [By way of explanation, the insert is a taxable transaction but since the copies are put into another taxable product (newspaper) and they are identified as such (hence the verbiage), they then become non-taxable since the paper is taxed. If the inserts do not go into a taxable product or are not marked, then the paper must collect tax.]

I believe DOR allows the names of all of the newspapers into which the inserts would be placed to be listed on the inserts in order to avoid having to line up each insert with the particular paper into which the insert is to be placed. Apparently. for some publications it is easier to list all than to have to list specifically. This may not be the case with everyone.

Q. I’m a freelance magazine writer based in Washington, D.C. I’m working on a story where I need to request Florida court and police records, but I’ve never dealt with agencies in the state. In the past, I’ve found press associations to be a great resource for advice on these matters, so I’m hoping you can either help me out or direct me to someone who can.

I’m interested in a criminal case that went to trial in 2013 in a small county in the Panhandle. I want to gather every single record, paper or otherwise, that’s publicly available, and I’m wondering what the best way to go about that is. Is it by contacting the courthouse? The district attorney’s office? The investigating agency? Some combination of all three? Do requests need to be filed in person, on the phone, or by snail mail, or does that vary by county? Is there anything else I should be aware of during this process?

If you have a tipsheet that members use, that could also prove helpful.

A. We have received this question in the past and the answer is as follows. Regarding court records, you can use the various county clerk websites to review that county’s online docket for criminal cases (circuit court). Here, for example, is the link to Bay County (Panama City)–http://baycoclerk.com/court-records/case-search/

Regarding police reports, arrest and booking reports are generally open for public inspection. There are certain exceptions such as criminal investigative or intelligence information. Note that certain information such as time, date, location of the crime and name sex, age, and address of person arrested cannot be withheld as exempted investigative or intelligence information (although another specific exemption like certain minor identity info. could apply).

These reports can be found at the local police department headquarters. I would look at the local website to determine the best way to request these records. Here is an example (Panama City Police Dept.): https://www.pcgov.org/269/Public-Records—Police

You can obtain prosecutor case files from the state attorney offices in the 20 circuits across Florida. See www.fpaa.state.fl.us. Some of these files may be on the SA Office website or call and ask staff to pull the file. (I have not researched this in a while). Also FDLE has a good deal of background records on its free search tool—see: http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/cms/Criminal-History-Records/Obtaining-Criminal-History-Information.aspx

If you find that some information is being withheld or delayed, here is the link to the Florida Sunshine Manual that lays out the parameters of each exemption. It also fleshes out the law surrounding Florida’s broad public access laws. http://www.myfloridalegal.com/sun.nsf/sunmanual

Finally, there is an older manual (Florid Public Records Handbook (2003)) written by a working reporter Joe Adams that is still useful to journalist in navigating the sources of public records in Florida. If this is a long term assignment it may be worth the investment. https://www.amazon.com/Florida-Public-Records-Handbook-Adams/dp/097275590X I have attached several “tips” from this manual. Keep in mind some of this information may now be online whereas it was not back in 2003 when this was written.

Q. One more court records question, this time about civil suits. In Florida, do you have access to anything beyond what’s in the court file? Like, is there an equivalent to getting the prosecutorial file in a criminal case? And if so, what’s the best way to go about requesting it?

A. Not that I’m aware of. But when you get the civil file there may be information in there regarding information retained by public entities/agencies/counties/cities which you might then follow up with a public records request.