Open government protections fared well in legislative session

There were a few nail-biting moments for government transparency advocates during this year’s state General Assembly session. But, in the end, lawmakers treaded lightly on Georgians’ rights to access government records, meetings and proceedings and to practice free speech.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation engaged with lawmakers on several legislative proposals, laying out the pros and cons for public access. Here’s a short list of what kept us busy until the end of the session:

House Bill 9/Senate Bill 45: Neither of these “upskirting” bills passed, but the General Assembly did add narrow language to Senate Bill 104 making it illegal to film someone under or through clothing. The language does not restrict legitimate newsgathering or videotaping. Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign the bill into law.

House Bill 15: The foundation fought to make sure this bill requiring electronic filing of court records contained protections for public access. The proposed legislation was amended repeatedly as it made its way through the House and Senate, but it failed to emerge from a conference committee on the last day of the session. Given that final versions of the bill potentially impeded free and immediate access to court records, even at the courthouse, the failure of the bill was a good result for Georgians. However, we expect the bill to emerge again in next year’s legislative session.

House Bill 75: This bill permits the state Division of Family and Children Services to redact portions of its records before providing them to the public. The allowable redactions relate to information provided by law enforcement or prosecuting agencies in pending investigations or prosecutions. It passed the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by the governor.

This bill is worrisome because it may limit disclosure of information in public DFACS records about children who die or are harmed while in DFACS custody. But its restrictions align with similar laws that apply to police records.

The bill’s proponents argued the law would help increase communication between DFACS and law enforcement agencies. The foundation will monitor future impacts of the law, watching for unnecessary restrictions to public access of DFACS records.

 House Bill 126: This bill reconfigures the Judicial Qualifications Commission, creating separate investigative and hearing panels to address alleged misconduct by judges. The bill also specifies transparency requirements requiring that the JQC make public:

  • Commission reports on informal dispositions of disciplinary matters; these reports are to be filed with the Georgia Supreme Court
  • Proceedings after formal charges are filed
  • Administrative matters of the commission.

Matters involving the alleged “incapacity” of a judge for health reasons will be sealed, but the records can be released by the commission under certain circumstances. The bill passed the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by the governor.

 House Bill 481: This bill prevents local governments from enacting future regulations that conflict with the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules limiting drone activity. The bill preserves the FAA and the state as rulemakers on drone usage in Georgia. It prevents the passage of conflicting local ordinances that could have complicated the use of drones for newsgathering and other activities in the public interest.

For a full recap of the bills we monitored throughout the session, including those that didn’t survive Crossover Day, check out our updated Legislative Watch.