First Things First
Carol LoCicero fights for her media clients’ constitutional rights
Published in 2021 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
By Carole Hawkins on June 24, 2021
Imagine a world in which Nixon didn’t have to release the Watergate tapes, the federal government was able to block the Pentagon Papers from being published, and The Boston Globe couldn’t unseal court records revealing decades of child molestation by priests.
That world will never exist—at least, not if Carol LoCicero has anything to say about it.
The Tampa media and intellectual property attorney focuses on First Amendment litigation at Thomas & LoCicero, which she co-founded in 2006. Calls come in from newspapers whenever a government agency refuses to turn over a public record, someone threatens to sue over a damaging exposé, or a publisher needs an article checked for liability risk before going to press.
It can be very gratifying work, LoCicero says. The impact is often felt within days or weeks, rather than years, since by statute, public records cases get pushed to the top of the docket. “They’re writing news stories about public dangers and government failures, gaps in the system or things gone awry, where the reporting itself can make a difference to real people,” LoCicero says of her clients. “It’s nice to have facilitated [this] with the little piece I get to do.”
LoCicero’s firm’s clients have ranged from individual journalists and social media influencers to publishing giants like The New York Times, CNN, the Associated Press, ESPN and the Miami Herald.
A memorable case came in 2009, after the NCAA sanctioned Florida State University for a cheating scandal involving 61 athletes. Tutors gave students answers to test questions and helped them write papers. A few, it turned out, couldn’t read beyond a second-grade level; one had to have the test questions read to him.
News outlets including the Tallahassee Democrat, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press wanted to report on the particulars. But the NCAA claimed the full details were not subject to public records law. FSU is a public university, but the NCAA is private.
A coalition of newspapers sued, and LoCicero was on the legal team.
The crux of the case was whether the law permitted public access to records in the NCAA sanctions proceedings. The NCAA had created a website to communicate with FSU lawyers, who had signed agreements not to reveal information shared there. That could have set a troubling precedent.
“You can’t have a confidentiality agreement that enables you to avoid your obligations under the public records act,” LoCicero says. “Had it worked, it would have shielded any records that got into that system from public access, even though they involved public institutions.”
The news team won, and the Florida 1st District Court of Appeal decision is cited often in public records cases, LoCicero says, because it deals with issues commonly seen in relationships between public and private entities.
Some of the attorneys in LoCicero’s office are former journalists or federal law clerks, people who always had an interest in this niche. LoCicero lucked into it.
Born in Tampa, LoCicero moved with her family to Winter Haven when she was 10. Somewhere along the way a guidance counselor may have suggested she become a lawyer—she’s not sure. What she does remember is that in high school she was not great at chemistry.
“My mind just did not work that way,” she says. “I was like, OK, well, the choices then are doctor and lawyer, and I’m definitely going to go the lawyer route.”
Talking with a family friend who was a Polk County circuit judge gave her a feel for the profession.
At the University of Florida’s law school, LoCicero found herself avoiding courses on corporate tax law and taking classes on civil rights.
As an associate for Holland & Knight, she chose an opening in the media law department. The firm drew lots of breach-of-contract and other types of commercial cases. But LoCicero stayed in her niche, focused on media, trademark and intellectual property issues.
“There were plenty of lawyers available to do the business litigation,” she says.
After 20 years, LoCicero left to found her own firm. She is the immediate past chair of Florida’s nonprofit First Amendment Foundation, former vice chair of the Florida Bar Association’s Media & Communications Law Committee, and serves on the governing committee of the ABA’s Forum on Communications Law.
Along with husband Bob Kline, also an attorney, LoCicero helped found the Tampa chapter of End 68 Hours of Hunger, a nonprofit that feeds children over the weekend who qualify for free school lunches during the week. She also mentors young female attorneys.
There is a common thread between her community service and her First Amendment work. “I always had the leanings,” she says, “of someone who was looking for work that supports a cause.”
A Sampling of LoCicero’s Recent Cases
- Associated Press, et al. v. Agency for Healthcare Administration, et al. (2020): As the virus raged through long-term care facilities, she sued the state of Florida on behalf of a news media coalition for access to public records on the number of deaths among residents and staff. She also sought numbers on testing and positive cases among residents and staff. Prior to a hearing, the state agreed to provide the data.
- Nix & DNA Sports Performance Lab, Inc., v. ESPN, Inc., et al. (2019): Dismissal affirmed in libel action against the Associated Press, ESPN and USA Today concerning an article about litigation that a former professional baseball player and his company brought against Major League Baseball.
- Folta v. The New York Times Company, et al. (2019): Summary judgment for The New York Times and journalist Eric Lipton in a defamation claim involving a news story on relationships between public university professors and the biotechnology and organic food industries concerning the safety of GMO products.
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