The state’s over-the-top crime stories and bizarre news reports are actually a product of some of America’s best transparency laws.
On February 8, authorities arrested a 24-year-old man in Florida on charges of assault with a deadly weapon—without intent to kill. He didn’t whap somebody with a gun, though, or even brandish a sword. Back in October, Joshua James, for reasons known only to himself, chucked a 3.5-foot alligator he’d found on the road into the drive-through window of a Palm Beach-area Wendy’s; on February 9, the court warned him to avoid both Wendy’s and animals in the future.
Thus ran another chapter in the endless saga of “Florida Man.” A longstanding meme of bizarre tales of crime and high jinks from “America’s wang,” which coalesced into the @_FloridaMan Twitter account and r/FloridaMan subreddit forum, Florida Man is both “the world’s worst superhero” and the embodiment of a sense that the Sunshine State is somehow just a bizarre place. Ever popular, Florida Man has spawned fan art and even a Tampa-area craft beer. And by concentrating national attention on stories like this gem from last year, which involves a self-proclaimed Norse god, bath salts, and arboreal bunga bunga shenanigans, it’s only reified the widespread conviction that Florida is a uniquely bent place. But rather than mock Florida Man as somehow representative of our southern appendage’s baked-in insanity, we ought to venerate the meme-man as a symbol of transparency to which all states should aspire. Because some observers of the phenomenon have made the compelling case that Florida Man is just the manifestation of some of America’s strongest pro-public sunshine laws.
A man dressed up as Florida Man, “the world's worst superhero.” Image via Flickr user PrincessPaparazzi.
Every American state has some form of sunshine law—a term for legislation, regulations, or constitutional amendments that guarantee public access to government affairs. But while these laws open most government meetings and documents to common scrutiny, many of them are limited or conditional. So theoretically, in a given state, you might have access to police records. However, actually getting them can take some time, or be stymied in certain contexts.
In Florida, on the other hand, there’s a deep fetish for the state’s long, defining history of hard-core transparency norms. Starting in 1909 with Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes (the Public Records Law), transparency in the state has strengthened over the years with the addition of the 1967 Government-in-the-Sunshine Law and a 1992 guarantee of transparency in both the legislature and the judiciary. Over the years, local courts have tended to rule in favor of the people’s interests, while the state’s attorney general’s office has—at no taxpayer expense, thanks to funding from the First Amendment Foundation of Tallahassee—helped to clarify the people’s rights to access via the yearly publication of the Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual. Even when the legislature chooses to limit access to some public information, these restrictions automatically fade after five years if they’re not consciously reapplied. And the state takes a deep interest in—and a hard line against—any scandal or regime that seems to run afoul of its transparency interests.
Screenshot of Huffington Post headline on a classic Florida Man story
These laws are fascinating from many wonky and weird political angles. But they are also the crux of Florida Man’s existence. As an article in local weekly the Miami New Times pointed out last year, Florida Man stories are almost always pulled from police reports, which cops in Florida have to offer up rapidly and freely in most cases (whereas in other states, acquiring such records may take time and effort). Some cops, knowing what’s expected of them, just dump troves of reports to the public as a matter of course, allowing dedicated Florida Man beat reporters to sift through them in search of gold. This ability to easily substantiate bizarre tips fast-tracks absurd, obscene news. And people in the state know it. While holding forth on a recent legislative challenge to an element of the state’s sunshine laws, a local outlet, venting about everything the community stood to lose, counted Florida Man as a potential casualty.
Some argue that easy access to police records isn’t enough to explain Florida Man. Carl Hiaasen, whose novels celebrate Florida Man-esque characters and antics, was quoted in The New York Times last year, explaining that from his point of view, Florida always takes a strange story and adds a unique flourish to it, driving the weirdness factor up to 11 in particularly poetic or striking ways. Yet attempts to explain this supposedly unique character are all squidgy: Some say the phenomenon is related to extreme polarization between class and political demographics in the state. Some say it stems from the local drug trafficking scene and party culture. Some say it’s a reflection of the collision of people from all over America and beyond in muggy weather, clashing and rubbing up against each other in the open, rather than behind closed doors.
But every state has its oddities. Sean Dunne, who released his free, 50-minute documentary Florida Man about a year ago on Vimeo, argued in an interview that while Florida is bizarre, he really could have made the documentary anywhere. It’s all about tapping into a region’s offbeat experiences—and, often, its down-and-out residents. Scrape away the veneer of any state and look through its crime records and you may well find just as many per capita Florida Man-level crimes, although with flavors and twists unique to the region. It’s worth noting that the picture used on the @_FloridaMan account is actually of Ricky Lee Kalichun, arrested in January 2011 in Indiana after covering his face in black marker and then attacking his neighbor with a sword.
Even with the theoretical universality of bizarre experiences, it’s hard to say if a “New York Man” or “California Man” trope could take off as well as Florida Man, given the right transparency laws (and mind-set in readers and reporters to seek out and interpret the absurd). But there’s only one way to find out: by emulating Florida’s sunshine laws, laudable for their creation of Florida Man as well as for a number of other public benefits. Embracing transparency could bring us all an educational understanding of the madness lurking just beyond the borders of our everyday life—both the scandalous and story-ready stuff and the wonky, important-for-good-governance stuff. The two can and should be celebrated together.