For 25 years, Barbara Petersen has been Florida’s defender of First Amendment rights. She’s stepping down from her official role. But she can never truly let go.
Story by Angela DiMichele, Photos by Chris Day | Dec. 12, 2019
Tallahassee, Fla. — Barbara Petersen never felt her path in life was defined. She had to whittle the force she would become.
She had pursued the arts early on despite her father’s objections; she was too smart to be an artist, he argued. But her stubbornness prevailed. She didn’t want to grind away at a 9-to-5 job and left college with a mosaic of degrees: pottery, weaving, anthropology, Spanish.
She was a good potter, but at 37, Petersen pivoted. She announced she would take the LSAT and enroll in law school.
“What in the world is wrong with you?” asked her husband, the award-winning author and journalist Bob Shacochis. “Why the hell do you want to go to law school?”
Petersen knew exactly why, though she never had any intention of becoming a lawyer.
She wanted the kind of philosophical education law school provided. She wanted to be able to think like a legal expert; sieve through a document to find every truth and every lie and question each word and its meaning.
Three years later, she graduated from Florida State University, though the thought of taking the Bar exam led her into a frenzy of breaking dishes one morning. Shacochis bought a plane ticket to Argentina and didn’t return to the couple’s home until Petersen had sat for the exam.
She passed the Bar. And with the highest possible score. Still, Petersen has only set foot in a courtroom once. She was never interested in defending anyone before a judge or jury. She wanted to become a defender of the law itself.
And she did, rising to become one of the nation’s top protectors of open government and a staunch advocate of First Amendment rights in Florida.
“I have found such a passion, and it is such an important issue that I firmly believe in and it really did change my life.”
“I have found such a passion, and it is such an important issue that I firmly believe in and it really did change my life,” she says.
Through the course of her career, Petersen led the Florida First Amendment Foundation through state administrations that were both Democratic and Republican. It doesn’t matter whether politicians loathe her positions or support them, Petersen commands respect.
Despite her slender frame, Petersen’s presence is one of force and poise. She is, undoubtedly, a big reason why Florida has some of the strongest government transparency in the country.
She has led countless training seminars for public officials, students, journalists and everyday citizens about open records and the public’s right to know.
She has survived six governors – from Democrat Lawton Chiles in the 1990s to Republican Ron DeSantis in 2019. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pay attention when Petersen raises concerns about a bill or a push to make an exemption to the open government laws.
And when politicians have tried to erode those laws, Petersen has stood in the way.
“Why I want the records is none of government’s business,” she likes to say.
So, when she decided she needed change and announced in June she was stepping down from her job, Floridians struggled to digest her impending absence. But those closest to her know that Petersen can never truly let go.
Jennifer Portman, enterprise editor for USA Today and former Tallahassee Democrat news director, says Petersen’s desire to shine a light on Florida’s government goes beyond a job.
“She embodied that, and that was a part of her,” Portman says. “That wasn’t a job. It’s a true calling to do the kind of work she has done. She is a true champion of the First Amendment, and it is in her through and through.”
During her 25 years of leading the foundation, Petersen worked as the chair of Florida’s Commission on Open Government Reform and on Gov. Jeb Bush’s Task Force on Privacy and Technology. She was the president of the board of directors of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and sat on numerous other boards.
She played a key role in the First Amendment Foundation’s work with Gov. Charlie Crist in creating the Office of Open Government in the Executive Office of the Governor. And she has crafted several friend-of-the-court briefs, including for Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach. The United States Supreme Court ruled the Riviera Beach city council had violated a citizen’s First Amendment rights in arresting him and having him removed from a meeting.
Petersen created a culture of empowerment in Florida, Portman says. She taught not only journalists but citizens how to hold the government accountable.
“She has been able to be that one who can sound the warning bell, who can let us know when something is a bad thing, a good thing or a benign change,” Portman says. “This is about the public being able to know what is done under their name. Pure and simple.”
‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’
Petersen grew up in the mountains of Virginia. Her parents were not lawyers. Far from it.
Her father, born during the Depression and abandoned by his own father, worked three jobs as an air-traffic controller, a taxi driver and a telephone operator. On most days, Petersen didn’t see him until 9 at night.
“He would read to me whatever it was he was studying, and he was getting his degree in American literature,” she fondly remembers.
At 10, Petersen read William Faulkner with her father.
“It really instilled in me a love, not just of literature, but of language,” she says. “And law is all about language.”
Her mother worked as a secretary to help ensure a college education for Petersen’s two older sisters.
“I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I grew up in a strictly matriarchal family,” she says. “My great aunt, who raised my dad, ruled the world. And her mother before her ruled the world. So strong women. . . Of course you’re strong, right? You’re a woman.”
The family’s middle-class income offset Petersen’s opportunities for financial aid, but a quality education was nonnegotiable. By May of her senior year in high school, she had only applied to art schools and ended up in the Shenandoah Valley, at Madison College, which is now James Madison University. Then, it was a “dinky” school with 3,000 students.
During her years of education, she never questioned her choices. But something was missing.
She discovered that her father might have been right, after all, about becoming an artist. Her mind strayed to language and law; she began thinking about people and their cultures, like an Indian tribe that had no words in its language for numbers. Petersen found it fascinating.
She learned that studying other people and cultures could help her better understand her own.
She saw herself as someone who was good at a number of things but great at nothing. She struggled to find what made her tick.
“Most people have to make the shape of their lives,” she says.
She admires her husband, whom she described as “prickly,” for knowing he wanted to be a writer early on. Her own path took twists and turns.
“What do you want to do when you grow up” Shacochis once asked her.
He puts on a female voice to mock the answer his wife gave him: “I don’t know. I just want to be happy. I’m not interested in becoming. I’m just interested in being.”
“That’s a crock of s–t,” Shacochis told Petersen. “Better change that sensibility because I don’t want to beanybody who just wants to sit around and be happy. Let’s see how well you do on the happiness scale here.”
Years later, it’s clear Petersen climbed high on that scale.
She worked many jobs, from a job for the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization to a travel agency in Palm Beach to being the staff attorney for the legislature’s Joint Committee on Information Technology. She even worked in a North Carolina marina, fueling boats and weighing fish, while Shacochis was working on a novel. She was then in her mid-30s, living in a double-wide trailer perched on stilts in the Outer Banks. This is where and when she decided on law school.
“When the wind blew, the lamps would sort of shake and the water in the toilet would slosh,” she recalls.
At dinner one night with a man Shacochis had met at a summer writing workshop he taught, Petersen complained that she wanted to go to law school but was unsure how she would pay for it. She wasn’t the type of person to take out loans only to later be forced into unsavory work simply because she owed money.
It turned out their dinner partner was Brian Dyson, then the CEO of Coca-Cola. His secretary called Petersen a few days later. Dyson would pay her tuition. He didn’t care where she enrolled. He didn’t care how much. He didn’t want her to repay him. But there was one stipulation: “What I would ask is do for those you can, what you can, when you can.”
It cost $6,000 to attend Florida State’s law school for three years back in the late ‘80s.
The check was made out to Petersen’s long-time nickname: Catfish. Years ago at Madison College, she’d given a man in her art classes a copy of the poem, “Your Catfish Friend” by Richard Brautigan.
Somehow the name stuck with Petersen.
“I thought, ‘I’ll never be able to cash this.’”
She was wrong.
The law and a legend
On a chilly November morning, Petersen stands at the front of a small classroom at FSU’s College of Law, the same building where friends and colleagues had honored her work a month earlier.
That night, underneath the dome-shaped rotunda, lawyers and journalists sipped wine and whiskey and sang Petersen’s praises. They had come to celebrate her retirement with quips and tears. Petersen floated around the room in her black dress, black tights and knee-length black boots. She kissed cheeks and offered hugs.
She was called brave. A champion. A protector.
She relished the moment. She had often felt eclipsed by her husband’s success as an award-winning author. But Shacochis had figured out a long time ago that his wife would leave a hefty legacy of her own.
He realized it one day, more than 20 years ago, when he was attending a book festival in Orlando. He was speaking along with novelist Terry McMillan and author David Simon and was certain the next day’s Orlando Sentinel would feature the three acclaimed writers on the front page.
Instead the front page carried a story about Petersen.
“And I said, ‘S–t!’” Shacochis recalls. He remembers telling his wife: “I told you to get out of my shadow. I didn’t tell you to put me in your shadow.”
Her largesse played out in a video tribute at her sendoff party. It featured an unlikely cast of characters: former Gov. and now U.S. Representative Charlie Crist, former members of the Florida House of Representatives, a columnist from the Orlando Sentinel. They pondered how Floridians would get on without her.
Bob Shaw was serving as president of the First Amendment Foundation when former Miami Herald Managing Editor Pete Weitzel hired Petersen to head it. Shaw recalled the early days of her career, his words taking the retirement party audience back to the closet-sized office in which a 42-year-old Petersen began her career.
“Nobody knew who she was,” Shaw said. “Nobody knew what the First Amendment Foundation was, what it did, what it stood for. We sold Sunshine manuals, that’s how anybody knew us. She became Barbara Petersen. She became the First Amendment Foundation by sheer force of effort.”
Shaw called on the audience to continue her legacy by stopping the further erosion of Florida’s open government laws.
“The number of exemptions in Florida public records law has grown from 100 or 200 to over 1,100. And it keeps going up,” he said. “So, tonight I ask all of you in Barbara’s name, we need to fight harder. We need to be more aggressive.”
The First Amendment Foundation is already tracking 122 bills filed for the next legislative session that could add to the 1,159 exemptions to open government laws that already exist. Medical history and records, Baker Act reports, autopsy photos,active criminal intelligence and investigative information, identifying information of a victim of child abuse or any sexual offense, any comprehensive log of state and local law enforcement resources, home addresses, birthdays, photographs and phone numbers of sworn law enforcement officers; these are all exempt from public record laws.
Weitzel said one of the most important decisions he made in his life was to hire Petersen as president.
Weitzel remains one of Petersen’s idols to this day. Without him, she would have never had what she said was truly her dream job.
Petersen sat on a chair next to the lectern and crowned herself with a pink tiara, which she half-jokingly asked for as a present. She pressed her hands together, as though she were praying. Her eyes wrinkled and a small smile escaped her lips.
“If she has concerns, I have concerns,” Weitzel said.
A month later, it’s hard to tell that Petersen was the guest of honor at a retirement party. She steps into a room for her last seminar in Tallahassee with her eternal vim and vigor.
“I’m still the president,” she jokes. “Some of you thought I had retired already.”
This is her favorite part of the job: talking with ordinary folks, answering their questions, solving their problems.
Petersen’s knowledge controls the room. Her knowledge of public records and the First Amendment is deep. Her wit remains as sharp and agile as the day she began the job.
She dives into her presentation on Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes: public records. She shares with the audience things they may not have known before; that all text messages or emails on a personal computer between public officials about public information are subject to public records laws – even Facebook posts that are related to public business.
The small group of about 20 people engages with her the entire time, eyes wide like saucers as they learn the caveats of the law. Petersen lectures for nearly four hours without stopping for longer than a minute or two to answer questions as hands pop up around the room with each topic.
She speaks with animated authority. Her fingers jab at the air in front of her when she emphasizes a point. When asked a question, a quizzical expression on her face lays bare her zeal for the discussion at hand.
She likes to question the meaning of words.
During the discussion of public participation at meetings, an audience member asks if there is ever a time to remove a speaker from a public meeting. What if that person was engaging in verbal attacks?
“What’s an attack?” Petersen challenges.
On the topic of citizens’ access to public meetings, Petersen weighs out loud: “What’s a meeting?”
Despite Petersen’s steely resolve, there have been times when she felt fear. After September 11, she was nervous the Florida Press Center might come under attack. When anthrax was being mailed to newsrooms in the early 2000s, Petersen used to open letters in a separate room in her office building. Only she was allowed to open them. She sprayed each envelope with bleach for a month. She only touched mail with rubber gloves.
“I didn’t want my staff exposed to it. We just didn’t know what was going to happen,” she says.
The clock reads 40 after noon. She intended to stop at noon, but she warned them before starting that she could talk about public records and open government from “now until the 12th of never.”
Petersen dismisses the room for a lunch break, but she let them know she would be there to answer any questions.
“What, you have two weeks left?” a man asks her.
“I wish,” she responds. “I don’t have the temperament to retire.”
‘Complacency is death’
In the middle of one of her last busy days, Petersen makes time for lunch at a Tallahassee restaurant buzzing with the noise of chatter and clinking silverware.
Soon, she will begin a new chapter of her life with Shacochis, at their second home in the mountains of New Mexico. Language has been the thread of their lives. He achieved fame with his words; she, with her scrutiny of them. They have been featured as a power couple in Tallahassee. He has even written about their love in his book, “Domesticity.”
They have lived between the land of alligators that eat cats and dogs, as Shacochis wrote, and the land of enchantment. Over their back fence in New Mexico begins the Carson National Forest, which fades into the vast Pecos Wilderness. Petersen dreams of the patchwork of earthy colors in the bluffs. Neighbors unseen. No sounds. No lights. The opposite of her public life in Florida.
On this afternoon, she orders a cobb salad, water and an iced coffee. She sticks her hand into her water, scoops out the ice and plops the wet cubes into her coffee glass. She looks at her phone before peeking at the menu and mumbles to herself. She forgot to do something.
She says she is usually an organized person, but at the moment most things around her home and office are chaotic. Her washer and dryer are plopped in her living room while her kitchen is under renovation. She can’t remember where her roasting pan is, or what it even looks like, when her husband asks for one.
She doesn’t do well in disarray.
She began her career at the Florida Press Center in a tiny office that had nothing in it. She had to go buy her own desk, her own phone, her own computer. But it was all worth it.
“To me complacency is death,” she says, scrunching her face.
Her words seem to say that retirement is premature at 66.
“And everybody goes, ‘Oh! You’re retiring?’” she says. “Well, if it was 10 years ago, they’d say it was quitting because I don’t intend to not work. I just intend to do something different.”
Petersen says her main concern is for the Floridians who rely on her help. They need her.
“When somebody calls me and says they can either pay their mortgage or their public records request, we’ve got a problem,” she says.
She worries, too, how future lawmakers will affect Florida’s open access laws.
“You could count on being able to talk to staff, sometimes legislators about what they were doing,” she says. “We don’t have those champions anymore. We have good people who we can count on when a bill comes to the floor or in committee to say something and vote against a bill, but we haven’t had any reform to the public records law since 1995.”
Florida’s current leaders – she names Sen. Rob Bradley, Sen. Lori Berman and Rep. Ray Rodrigues — don’t always agree with her, Petersen says. But she knows they at least take her concerns into consideration.
“But it really does seem to me sometimes like in this divisive political situation we’re living in right now, the only thing they can agree on are public record exemptions,” she says. “Last year was the smallest number of bills historically passed by the legislature, but 12 percent of them were exemptions.”
She lets out a breathy chuckle when she remembers Gov. Jeb Bush’s first day in office.
“Jeb violated the Constitution on the first day in office by meeting in secret with the senate president and then the house speaker and it was an early session that year. Everybody is just back from vacation. I walk upstairs to my office and there is a line of reporters down the hall waiting to talk to me. . .”
She developed an understanding of the different governors over the years.
Petersen says Chiles was just OK on open government. Bush, after his first day, never warmed up to it. And she nicknamed Crist “Governor Sunshine” because he embraced open government laws with his first executive order being the creation of the Office of Open Government.
She says DeSantis hasn’t embraced it yet either. She is still waiting to see how he does.
Journalist Lucy Morgan says Petersen’s legislative experience is unparalleled.
“She had the respect of the legislative staff and members. When she went to speak for or against an issue, it got their attention,” says Morgan, a Pulitzer Prize winner known for her dogged pursuit of uncovering wrongdoing in the halls of power.
“And frequently a bill would pass or fail because Barbara simply announced that she opposed or supported it,” Morgan says. “She has been a tremendous asset at a time when the tendency of the legislature has been to close every door and shut every record.”
She says her friend deserves the crown. Or at least, a pink tiara.
“She has earned the right to be queen of whatever she wants to be queen of.”
“She has earned the right to be queen of whatever she wants to be queen of,” Morgan says.
Reginald Garcia, a Tallahassee lawyer and lobbyist of 35 years, says Petersen’s authority on First Amendment rights remains unmatched.
“Barbara built that credibility one year at a time, one session at a time, one issue at a time to the point where certain legislators would always ask, and to an extent still this happens, what the First Amendment Foundation’s opinion of certain legislation is,” Garcia says. “All these big brown statute books … her fingerprints are probably all over those.”
Former U.S. Attorney Pamela Marsh is taking over Petersen’s role. With her legal and law enforcement background, Garcia says she will make the transition seamless.
But Morgan voices what everyone else is thinking: it will take the foundation some time to fill Petersen’s shoes.
Her very big shoes.