A Florida circuit court judge issued a prior restraint on Aug. 30, 2023, barring members of the press from publishing anything that might identify an officer who had provided security for Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by Grant Stern, the executive editor of the news arm of progressive political organization Occupy Democrats, after he and a columnist were barred by a plainclothes officer from attending the governor’s Sept. 22, 2022, press conference at Miami Dade College.
The officer, who refused to identify himself at the time, filmed the pair of journalists on a cellphone and ordered a uniformed officer to remove them from the building. Stern made an on-the-spot records request for a copy of the recording and ultimately filed a formal records request to identify the plainclothes officer.
The Miami Police Department refused to identify the officer, asserting that he was working undercover, as distinct from simply in civilian clothes, and was therefore exempt from such disclosures. Stern filed the lawsuit in October 2022 challenging the decision.
During a hearing on Aug. 30, 2023, Circuit Court Judge Migna Sanchez-Llorens told the parties she would reserve judgment on the distinction. Attorneys for the city then asked that — if the judge were to rule that the officer was working undercover — the images and videos filed as evidence in the suit be sealed, redacted or blurred out to protect his identity.
Sanchez-Llorens noted an objection raised by Stern’s attorney but heard no arguments before ruling that Stern’s photograph and any other identifiers of the officer would be placed under seal until she ruled on the question of his status.
The following day, the judge expanded the gag order to include all media and said that no one should disclose the identity of the officer. “This means that all persons shall refrain from releasing name, photos, or badge number of the undercover agent,” Sanchez-Llorens wrote.
“[The judge] did all of that without briefing, motion, nothing,” Stern told the Tracker. “They [city’s attorneys] merely suggested, just to get a sense of the court, if they could get a further order after the ruling. That’s all they asked for. She went ahead and did the rest.”
Stern told the Tracker that there is virtually no limit on how long the judge can reserve judgment, and that he and other media will remain gagged until she issues a ruling.
“This is two out of the three branches of Florida government now censoring this,” Stern said. “If the state doesn’t want you around they exercise every lever of government to prevent state officials from facing tough questions.”
Stern subsequently filed a motion asking the judge to recuse herself from the case, arguing that not only did she issue her order without following proper procedure but had also prejudged that the officer was working undercover, showing bias in the case. Sanchez-Llorens denied the motion, which Stern has since appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal of Florida.