The public’s right to know in Georgia ended 2017 with a mixed scorecard.
On the plus side, the state’s high court affirmed that Northside Hospital and others similarly organized are subject to open records laws. Georgia senators decided to join their House counterparts, allowing video transmissions of committee meetings for the first time, starting in 2018.
But 2017 also had some setbacks. A jury found a citizen journalist guilty of a misdemeanor for an incident that arose from her recording of a political rally. A court ruled that unfiled court reporter recordings are not public records, a setback for legal affairs podcasts. And a remake of the state’s judicial watchdog appears to leave it less transparent, not more open, as legislators had promised.
Our year in review includes a detailed look at events that had an impact on public access and government transparency statewide, and how the Georgia First Amendment Foundation fought for citizens’ right to know.
- At the foundation’s Legislative Breakfast, state Rep. Wendell Willard details legislative efforts to recreate the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. CobbCounty Commissioner Lisa Cupid, a foundation board member, discusses public access to police body camera footage and how the issue is playing out for local governments. CNN’s Emily Avant explains how the news network is working with regulators to balance access and privacy concerns related to drone-collected video. And First Amendment attorney Tom Clyde, also on the foundation’s board, describes the problems with open records exemptions for college sports organizations in Georgia.
- Throughout the General Assembly session, the foundation encourages lawmakers to tread lightly on Georgians’ rights to access government records, meetings and proceedings and to practice free speech. The foundation engages with lawmakers on legislative proposals related to electronic filing of court records; redaction of portions of state Division of Family and Children Services records; reconfiguration of the Judicial Qualifications Commission; drone regulations; and so-called “upskirting” restrictions. (For a full recap, check out our post-session Legislative Watch.)
- Georgia House of Representatives sends a remake of the Judicial Qualifications Commission to the governor to sign. Supporters say the revamp increases transparency and reins in an overly aggressive judicial watchdog. Critics say giving lawmakers control over the commission will politicize it.
- The Atlanta Press Club honors longtime foundation Executive Director Hollie Manheimer with its Impact Award.
- Manheimer steps down as the foundation’s executive director to concentrate on other interests and soon joins the foundation’s board of directors. (Read Manheimer’s reflections on 21 years in the First Amendment trenches.)
- The Fannin Focus newspaper closes a year after its publisher was jailed in a records dispute.
- The foundation provides a well-attended open records training at Kennesaw State, one of several in-person sessions to help the public and local officials better understand state transparency laws. Other stops in 2017 included a training session with the Valdosta Hospital Authority; participation in an Atlanta Press Club panel on media literacy; and a lively public discussion on fake news and political persuasion.
- The Judicial Qualifications Commission remake becomes state law, as does new guidance for drone use and other measures passed by the 2017 General Assembly.
- The newly remade Judicial Qualifications Commission dismisses a case against a Georgia judge whose actions led to jailing of the Fannin Focus publisher and his lawyer. The commission discharged the complaints after an investigation that did not include contacting those who filed complaints.
- The state Senate agrees to permit video transmission of its committee hearings.
- The foundation honors The Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program and the late Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie B. Manis at its 2017 Weltner Banquet.
- A case involving the Undisclosed true-crime podcast ends with a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that unfiled court reporter recordings are not public records. The foundation opposes the Court’s position and suggests an alternative approach.
- The Georgia Supreme Court affirms government transparency laws apply to Northside Hospital in a case the foundation closely watched and weighed in on through court filings. The ruling supports the principle that publicly created institutions are bound by state open records laws, even if they reorganize as nonprofits. In an indication of the statewide impact, the Savannah Morning News soon cites the ruling in its ongoing efforts to get records from a local hospital.
- Citizen journalist and the foundation’s 2015 Open Government Hero Nydia Tisdale is found guilty of a misdemeanor in connection with filming a 2014 political rally.
- The foundation asks justices from the state’s high court to reconsider proposed “Rule 22” revisions that could narrow electronics use in courtrooms. The foundation had monitored and provided input on the issue all year, particularly when the Council of Superior Court Judges voted in July to embrace rule changes that would presumptively restrict the use of laptop computers, smartphones and other portable electronic devices in courtrooms statewide.
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