It seems that, too often, Florida is characterized as a state full of bizarre individuals. Regular headlines worm their way into the public eye, boasting claims of residents fighting alligators and falsely reporting bobcat attacks. Entire online communities are even dedicated to chronicling the misadventures of men and women from Florida. A misinformed person might even get the idea that the state’s wildlife is incredibly hostile and its people incredible dimwitted.
The truth is a bit more nuanced than that.
It is true that Florida is unique among states for a number of reasons. The Sunshine State has a reputation similar to that of Australia for its wildlife. Snakes, wildcats, large spiders, and yes, alligators all give the sense that it’s a dangerous place. Additionally, Florida’s weather is pretty unique for the country, with hurricanes and year-round sun. All of this combined makes for an environment that can’t be found in any other state.
It’s also a surprisingly densely-packed state. Many residents of Florida are transplants, with senior citizens an oft-profiled demographic that comes from people wishing to live in sunnier climates. Other arrivals in Florida include Caribbean immigrants, tourists, and a large number of tourists, making for a diverse state. As the result of all of these transplants, it’s the fourth most populous state but the 26th largest. With plenty of residents and not a lot of space, it’s inevitable that a lot happens.
However, it’s one specific set of laws that contributes largely to Florida’s bizarre reputation. Called the Sunshine Laws, these protections are intended to foster transparency for Florida’s government proceedings. Any board or commission that meets must do so publicly, and record any minutes from the meeting. All of the ensuing documents are then made available for public record. Additionally, these records include things like police reports. Other states have their own variants on these laws, but Florida takes particular pride in their openness, as these laws have been in effect since the early 1900s.
While there are exceptions to this rule, to preserve identities in some cases, Florida has taken transparency and made it into an art form. While journalists in other states may struggle to find information about a particular case, often only gaining a complete picture once it has stopped being relevant news, Florida media are able to take advantage of this massive amount of information.
Because of this, the Sunshine Laws are the single-greatest contributor to somewhat skewed perceptions of Florida. With hundreds of millions of people living in the United States, it’s safe to say that unusual crimes and incidents happen en masse every single day. However, Florida’s have been thrust into the national spotlight due to these laws. Add in the aforementioned wildlife and high population, and you have a recipe for an endless stream of eye-catching news stories that the Internet can’t seem to get enough of.
The popularity of “Florida Man” has led to something of a vicious cycle, where media outlets will be more active about publishing stories from the Sunshine State knowing that they will get clicks. It’s unfortunate, given that most Floridians have never released a pet boa constrictor or set up a drug lab in their trailer park, but the Sunshine Laws ensure that these stories will be printed for years to come.