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Petersen Steps Down from 1st Amendment Foundation

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FL First Amendment Foundation
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After a quarter-century as president of the First Amendment Foundation in Florida, Barbara Petersen is stepping down at year’s end.

“I think it’s time for a change; 25 years is a long time and I think we need to take a fresh look at what we do and how we do it,” said Petersen.

Petersen has not been at the Foundation since day one – it was created in 1984 -- but she says when she did get there a decade later, there wasn’t much foundation to be had. As the first hired president, Petersen says she was handed the keys to an empty office.

“There was no staff; I walked into my office in the Florida Press Center and there was nothing,” Petersen remembered. “No desk, no computer, there was no phone. Because no one had had the job before me.”

Working from the ground up, Petersen was able to create her new job, which over the years has sometimes seemed like an uphill climb.

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Credit wuwf.org
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Barbara Petersen (R), shown visiting Pensacola, steps down as FAF president at the end of 2019.

“Working with the 1st Amendment Foundation Board, who then as now, [is] very concerned about what they saw then as an erosion of the public’s right of access,” said Petersen. “I wish I could say things are like, phenomenally better, but they’re not.”

There continue to be roadblocks to getting access to public records and government meetings, says Petersen, who to some extent blames the Legislature, who passed the last major Sunshine Law legislation in 1995.

“And that puzzles me; because this is something that’s enshrined in our constitution, and we don’t see government embracing our right of access,” said Petersen. “And we certainly don’t see the legislature doing it to the extent that I would like to see.”

The First Amendment Foundation, believes Petersen, is aptly named. That amendment, she says, is the lynchpin for the rest of the constitution, citing a quote from comedian Dave Chappelle.

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Credit U.S. Dept of Justice
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Pamela Marsh, former U.S. Attorney, takes over as president of the 1st Amendment Foundation on Jan. 1, 2020.

“Chappelle said ‘the First Amendment is first for a reason;’” said Petersen. “It is the lynchpin. Without a free press – and the press is under assault; without the right to criticize our government – that’s [also] under assault – where would we be?”

Our democracy is dependent on two things, according to Petersen; an independent media and the public’s right to oversee its government and hold it accountable.

“Those are two fundamental rights, both guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Petersen said. And it is under assault unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime – and I’m no spring chicken.”

Pamela Marsh, the former U.S. Attorney for North Florida, will succeed Petersen as of December 1. Petersen will finish out the year as FAF president and then focus on one of her pet projects – developing training and compliance materials for local government.

“Local government really is where the rubber meets the road; people are more engaged at the local level than they are at the state or federal level,” said Petersen. “And I think it’s local governments that need the most help, and their resources are more and more limited.”

While Pam Marsh gets up to speed in running FAF and readies for the 2020 legislative session, Barbara Petersen will be around, if needed.