Legislative Watch

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation seeks to engage lawmakers in protecting and expanding Georgians’ right to know. We monitor legislative proposals in the General Assembly, looking for bills that could have an impact on open government and free speech in our state.

In the 2024 General Assembly session, GFAF actively communicated with lawmakers about the potential impact of legislative proposals. (See our watch list below.) Many of the bills that would have eroded Georgians’ right to know what’s happening with their government or limited their right to speak freely did not survive the session. That is very good news. But lawmakers did pass a few troubling bills — including some that are similar to laws in other states where taxpayers already are footing the bill to defend them in court.

A prime example is Senate Bill 351. It requires schools and social media companies to regulate minors’ use of social media through age verification. As commentary from GFAF’s Legislative Watch team explains, age verification requirements are notoriously problematic. They are difficult to enforce, can easily be faked and often create data privacy risks. A law similar to Senate Bill 351 has been struck down an Arkansas court. Another is currently being litigated in California.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed Senate Bill 351, but he still has an opportunity to veto other troublesome bills (noted below) that would undermine government transparency and free speech in Georgia. The clock is ticking. Bills that passed both chambers of the Legislature but are neither signed nor vetoed by the governor become law July 1, 2024, unless a particular bill states otherwise.

Thanks to Madi Blair, Jessica Cooper and Andrew Miller, law students at the University of Georgia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic, for providing research and analysis for this year’s Legislative Watch. Our legislative monitoring is enabled by Bill Track 50.

Keep up with our open government and free speech priorities at GFAF in the News, and follow us on social media (links above).

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SOCIAL MEDIA & TECHNOLOGY

House Bill 910 would have required websites containing a “substantial portion” of “material harmful to minors” to verify the ages of people attempting to access this material. The bill also would have made the websites liable for any damages arising from a minor accessing these materials by broadly permitting civil lawsuits against the websites for failure to verify users’ ages. The bill carved out an exception for internet service providers, news outlets, and public interest broadcasts. The bill did not survive the session.

>>> Read more: Lawmakers push for law to require proof of adulthood to view adult websites

Senate Bill 351 requires schools and social media companies to regulate minors’ use of social media. The bill adds social media usage to character education in Georgia schools, and it would require schools to prohibit social media use on school equipment unless the use is for educational purposes. The bill also confines the definition of cyberbullying for purposes of school discipline to bullying that takes place on school equipment or on school grounds. For cyberbullying that takes place off school grounds, the bill limits the definition to serious or severe bullying that targets one or more particular students or school employees. The bill also forces social media providers to take “commercially reasonable” efforts to verify the age of minors and require parental supervision, and it limits social media companies’ ability to collect data and provide specific advertisements to minors. Lawmakers passed SB 351. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill on April 23, 2024. The law takes effect July 1, 2025.

>>> Read more: School social media ban multiplies censorship

👁️‍🗨️ HB 986 would have made it a felony to use “deepfakes,” meaning artificially generated video or sound recordings, with intent to reduce a candidate’s chances of being elected or “otherwise influencing the result of an election or referendum.” The crime would have been punishable by one to five years and a maximum fine of $50,000. The bill penalized the creation and republication of deepfakes, but it allowed candidates to create their own deepfakes of themselves. The bill did not survive the session.

>>> Read more: Does Georgia’s bill banning “deepfakes” go too far?

👁️‍🗨️ SB 473 aims to protect people’s personal data by imposing rules on data collectors and granting people several rights, including the right to correct inaccuracies and request deletion of personal information. The bill did not survive the session.

LIBRARIES & EDUCATION

SB 390 would have blocked the Georgia Board of Regents and any local government from spending money or doing any business with the American Library Association or any of its affiliates. The bill also would have moved the credentialing process for librarians from the Secretary of State’s office to a separate nonprofit. The bill did not survive the session.

FREE SPEECH & EXPRESSION

SB 63 — a legislative response to controversy surrounding the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center — restricts the ability of judges to allow unsecured release people arrested for criminal trespass, obstruction of a law enforcement officer, racketeering and conspiracy, domestic terrorism, riot, inciting a riot, unlawful assembly, or possessing tools for commission of a crime. The bill also restricts charitable bail funds from posting more than three cash bonds per year. The bill stalled in 2023 but moved steadily through the current session. Lawmakers passed SB 63, and Gov. Kemp signed it into law on May 1, 2024.

OPEN GOVERNMENT & PUBLIC ACCESS

HB 1044 would have increased the threshold for competitive bidding for local government construction contracts from $100,000 to $250,000. A similar bill, HB 193, passed last year but was vetoed by the governor because it failed to account for state government purchasing. HB 1044 did not survive the 2024 session.

>>> Read more: Increasing no-bid government contracts would reduce transparency

HB 909 would have amended the First Offender Act to require automatic sealing of sentences, arrest information, and related criminal history for first offenders. Currently, first offender records only can be sealed following a petition process, i.e., sealing is not automatic. The records would have remained available to law enforcement and the defendant. The bill did not survive the session.

>>> Read more: Change to first-offender law would enable corruption cover-ups

HB 873 establishes a juvenile treatment court whose records would not be subject to public access or subpoena. Lawmakers passed passed HB 873, and the governor signed it into law on May 6, 2024.

HB 881 would have amended Georgia Code Section 15-18-32 in ways that could have reduced public access to information about the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Qualifications Commission. The bill did not survive the session.

✅ HB 196 would have expanded application of the state Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act to the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, which currently is shielded from Georgia’s transparency laws. The bill did not survive the session.

>>> Read more: Growing mistrust instead of cannabis in Georgia

✅ SB 324 creates an address confidentiality program, administered by the Georgia Secretary of State, for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or human trafficking, and for other people for whom the disclosure of their address would increase the risk that they could be physically harmed by another person. The program will allow people to use a designated address with the Secretary of State as their address to keep their actual address confidential. It will allow participants to use a designated form to notify government entities (including utilities and clerks of superior courts) of their participation in the confidentiality program; receipt of the form will trigger government entities’ responsibility to keep the participant’s address confidential. Lawmakers passed passed SB 324, and it awaits the governor’s signature.

👁️‍🗨️ SB 212 would have required all counties that use probate court judges as election superintendents to create a board of elections by the end of 2024. The bill would have required those boards of elections to hold monthly meetings subject to the Open Meetings Act, and it would have required the boards to keep and make available to the public written records of policy decisions. The bill did not survive the session.

👁️‍🗨️ HB 883 would have allowed county health boards to meet by teleconference routinely, rather than only when made necessary by public emergencies or other extenuating circumstances. The bill did not survive the session.

👁️‍🗨️ HB 269 would have allowed teleconference meetings of local workforce development boards. The bill did not survive the session.

Watch a replay of our 2024 Gold Dome preview, where lawmakers Sen. Jason Esteves, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver and Rep. Bill Werkheiser joined with Georgia Municipal Association General Counsel Rusi Patel in a conversation covering public access to booking photographs, referendum politics, social media regulation, artificial intelligence, Sunshine Laws enforcement and more.