Make plans to attend Ga. Bar Media & Judiciary Conference Feb. 22, 2019

Register now for the 28th Annual Georgia Bar Media & Judiciary Conference, scheduled 9 a.m. to 5 pm. on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, at the State Bar of Georgia Conference Center in downtown Atlanta.

Sessions will explore emerging First Amendment issues in the courts, in the media and in government. The conference is co-sponsored by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and its board members play a key role organizing the event.

For the first time in Georgia, Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum will present “Law, Justice and the Holocaust,” a program that’s captivated audiences across 40 states for more than a decade.

Also on the schedule:

  • New tests for the media: Keeping public trust in a polarized world
  • City of Atlanta transparency
  • New rules for public access to the courts
  • Podcasting Georgia’s civil rights past
  • Civility and free speech on college campuses
  • WABE’s “Political Breakfast,” live and on the record
  • Back by popular demand, the day-long event will wrap up with a reception.

The public is welcome. Advance registration is $250 for lawyers seeking CLE credit and $30 for everyone else. The cost includes lunch and parking. Fees increase $100 on the day of the conference.

REGISTER NOW

2019 GFAF Legislative Breakfast recap

Panelists discuss transparency issues related to sexual harassment reporting, voting machines, schools and hospitals as the Georgia Legislature opens.

(L-R) Tom Clyde, James Salzer, Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid, Marissa Dodson, Sen. Jennifer Jordan and Cynthia Counts.

A panel of elected officials, First Amendment lawyers and a seasoned Gold Dome journalist weighed in on potential transparency threats emerging in the 2019 General Assembly session during the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s annual Legislative Breakfast on Jan. 24.

On the agenda: New rules for filing sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers. Big changes to Georgia’s voting system and a potential $150 million price tag. Eroding access to public school operations and performance. And a move to add visibility to the business operations of many hospitals.

The lively discussion took place at the Georgia State University College of Law. Co-sponsors of the event were the GSU chapters of the National Lawyers Guild, the Black Law Student Association and the Latinx & Caribbean Law Student Association. First Amendment attorney and GFAF board member Cynthia Counts moderated the discussion.

If you missed it, we’ve got you covered with a video of the event. Highlights include:

  • State Sen. Jennifer Jordan laments the proposed new sexual harassment policy lawmakers unveiled as the 2019 session started (start at the 2:38 mark).
  • Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid, a GFAF board member, says the City of Atlanta’s transparency problems were an eye-opener for other local governments and describes how agencies should respond to open records requests from citizens (6:32).
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s longtime statehouse journalist James Salzer wants the Legislature to abide by the same transparency laws that lawmakers have placed on local governments (9:25).
  • Marissa Dodson, public policy director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, talks about the role of statewide Accountability Courts and data available to the public to measure their success (16:42).
  • First Amendment attorney and GFAF board member Tom Clyde weighs in emerging open

    Tom Clyde

    government issues, including the loss of transparency in school testing and possible added insight into the business operations of many of Georgia’s hospitals (22:25). He also lays out what Georgians don’t know about the proposed changes to voting processes and new voting machines (46:40).

The full video also provides a lively debate about the role of police body cameras and a more detailed conversation about Georgia’s shift to new voting machines and processes.

State immigration board agrees to improve transparency

Following foundation’s court filing supporting City of Decatur lawsuit, board resolves open records and meetings concerns

Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board pledged to operate more transparently as part of a court settlement with the City of Decatur and the law firm that represents it, ending a dispute that has lingered since 2017.

In a consent order, the board agreed to post meeting schedules and summaries online and otherwise comply with the state’s open meetings and open records acts. The board approved the settlement at a special called meeting Jan. 8 and later posted a summary of what transpired.

The settlement came three weeks after the Georgia First Amendment Foundation joined the Southern Poverty Law Center in a friend-of-the-court brief that supported the Morton, Wilson, & Downs law firm’s suit and contended the Immigration Enforcement Review Board was not following the state’s open records laws, as it claimed.

The origins of the case stretch back to November 2017 when Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, then a gubernatorial hopeful, filed a complaint with the board against Decatur. His complaint alleged the city failed to properly cooperate with federal immigration law enforcement authorities. Cagle did not publicly push the case after he lost the Republican primary runoff in July.

Immigration Enforcement Review Board members in 2018.

The immigration board, whose members are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the state House of Representatives, reviews complaints alleging local governments are not complying with state immigration laws.

In addition to highlighting transparency violations, the dispute between Decatur and the board drew attention to board members staying beyond their term limits, which prompted Gov. Nathan Deal to name replacements.

 

Georgia’s 2018 right-to-know milestones

Reflecting on a year of transparency challenges and opportunities.

As 2018 comes to a close, Georgians can look ahead to a more transparent future.

The biggest news: What started as an ugly records fight between news organizations and the City of Atlanta led to the Georgia attorney general’s first investigation into a public records violation and may create a model for open government. What’s more, a related settlement will fund open government training throughout Georgia.

Here is a look back at events that helped or hurt public access and government transparency statewide in 2018, and how the Georgia First Amendment Foundation fought for citizens’ right to know.

Extraordinary donations announced at Weltner Banquet will boost transparency training

At our 2018 Weltner Award Banquet, we honored Cobb County Senior Judge Jim Bodiford for his career-long efforts to keep courts open and transparent. During the October banquet, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News also announced an $80,000 donation funded by the news organizations’ settlement with the City of Atlanta that will be used to provide open government training to public officials, members of the public and journalists across Georgia.

In addition, the Department of Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication announced a donation through its William S. Morris Chair in News Strategy and Management. The university will provide $10,000 to update the foundation’s popular open government guidebooks. The Georgia Press Association also is contributing $1,000 toward the guidebook revisions.

Support from these donors and sponsors of our annual fundraising event added up to more than $136,000 — an extraordinary amount underscoring that our open government mission is more important than ever.

Legislative Breakfast foreshadows a tough session for transparency

At our Legislative Breakfast, lawmakers, reporters and government watchdogs gathered at Georgia State School of Law to discuss potential threats to transparency in Georgia. It turned out that the 2018 General Assembly session was not a good one for the public’s right to know.A bill passed to let big lottery winners keep their names secret, although they receive millions of dollars from the state. A criminal justice reform bill passed that significantly expanded trial courts’ability to seal court records and conceal criminal histories. A bill passed that adds an unnecessary exemption to the Open Records Act; it enables the Georgia Department of Human Services to shield from the public information on people chosen by the department to serve as foster parents. The bills became law July 1.

State’s highest court rulings promote transparency

The Georgia Supreme Court reiterated that public information that otherwise might qualify for an Open Records Act exemption can be released if a government agency wants to disclose it.

Justices also approved a rule change that would generally keep existing protocols in place for audio and video recording in courtrooms, as well as give judges discretion about whether people can use electronic devices to type and text in their courtrooms.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Court of Appeals confirmed that citizens who request public records should not be hassled about the reason for their requests.

Keep up with what the Georgia First Amendment Foundation has planned for 2019 by becoming a member today.

Ga. Supreme Court Chief Justice Harris Hines advocated for the public’s right to know

In the days following former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harris Hines’ death on Nov. 4, he has been praised for his judicial acumen, fairness and kindness. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation remembers him as a friend of our organization and our cause.

Hines, who had just retired from the bench in August, was a regular at our annual Weltner Award Banquet. He introduced past honoree Sam Olens, and, in October, appeared in a video tribute to the openness and transparency of this year’s honoree, Cobb Superior Court Senior Judge James Bodiford.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harris Hines

Hines himself was a Cobb County Superior Court judge in the early 1990s when the Marietta Daily Journal filed a lawsuit against Promina Health System and Northwest Georgia Health System seeking an injunction requiring the defendants to comply with Georgia’s Sunshine Laws. Hines ruled in favor of the Journal, setting a precedent of public access to records of a private, nonprofit hospital doing work on behalf of a governmental hospital authority. The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed his ruling in 1995.

As a Supreme Court justice, Hines wrote the Court’s unanimous opinion in Howard v. Sumter Free Press, which compelled the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office to comply with the Open Records Act. The opinion rejected an allegation that the newspaper’s records requests were not bona fide because they were made verbally.

Earlier this year, in Tucker v. Atwater, Hines joined justices Keith Blackwell and Nels Peterson in questioning whether Tift County school officials had gone too far in punishing a teacher for comments made on her private Facebook account.

Foundation board member and First Amendment attorney F.T. “Tread” Davis was a lawyer on the 1990s hospital authority case and remembered Hines fondly. “He was a champion of the First Amendment,” Davis said. “He was the epitome of judicial temperament and thoroughness, besides being a wonderful human being.”

Hines, 75, was killed in a car accident on I-85 en route to his home in Marietta from Newnan, where he had heard his granddaughter sing in a church choir. His memorial service at 2 p.m. on Nov. 13 will be broadcast live from First Presbyterian Church of Marietta.

Donors pledge more than $136,000 in great show of support for the foundation’s open government mission

Contributions announced at Oct. 17 Weltner Award Banquet will help educate Georgians on the public’s right to access public documents, meetings and proceedings.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation has received pledges, sponsorships and individual donations adding up to more than $136,000 — a robust display of support for protecting and expanding open government in our state.

Cobb Judge James Bodiford, with Jim Zachary (L) and Amelia Weltner

The funds were contributed in conjunction with the foundation’s annual Weltner Award Banquet on Oct. 17. The banquet, which honored Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge James Bodiford, was one of the nonprofit’s most successful fundraisers ever, attracting more than 120 attendees and 11 event sponsors.

During the banquet, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News announced an $80,000 donation that the foundation will use to provide open government training across Georgia.

In addition, the Department of Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication announced a generous donation through its William S. Morris Chair in News Strategy and Management. The university will provide $10,000 to update the foundation’s popular open government guidebooks. The Georgia Press Association also is contributing $1,000 toward the guidebook revisions.

“In a time when trust in government is at all time lows, transparency is one of the best tools for building trust,” said Richard T. Griffiths, president of the foundation’s board of directors. “We intend for these funds to be used to provide training in Atlanta and throughout the state for the public, journalists and government officials. That means, in particular, we will be in a position to help the City of Atlanta as it builds out its extraordinary openness initiative.”

Donation emerges from settlement with city

The AJC, Channel 2 and the City of Atlanta recently settled a complaint that the newsrooms filed in April with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. The complaint alleged “a culture of political interference” with open records requests under the administration of former mayor, Kasim Reed. Under terms of the settlement, the city council and new Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms agreed to take substantial steps to increase transparency and also to pay the news organizations $80,000 as partial reimbursement of legal fees. That settlement money will fund the news organizations’ donation to the foundation.

Alex Taylor, chief executive officer of Cox Enterprises, parent company of the news outlets, said in a statement, “We couldn’t be more proud of the team at WSB-TV and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for its watchdog reporting on this incredibly important matter and proving, once again, that local journalism matters.

“The First Amendment and state laws such as the Georgia Open Records Act are essential to our democracy and freedom as citizens because they enable us to see how our government works,” Taylor said. “We support the Georgia First Amendment Foundation in its mission to hold our public officials accountable and demand transparency in government.”

Honoring commitment to courtroom access

At the banquet, Bodiford accepted the foundation’s 2018 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award, making him the 17th honoree to receive the award. It was presented by Amelia Weltner, granddaughter of the late Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner, an unyielding champion of government transparency for whom the award is named.

The foundation recognized Bodiford for his 30-year commitment to protecting the public’s right to courtroom access. The Cobb senior judge kept his courtroom open while presiding over some of Georgia’s highest-profile criminal cases.

In his keynote speech, Bodiford encouraged other judges to remember that the judicial system needs “the confidence of the public” to succeed. “The more they know, the better they’ll feel about it,” he said.

>>> Watch WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News report, read The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s article about the donation and check out the Daily Report’s coverage of the foundation’s 2018 Weltner Award Banquet.