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. Below are the bills we’re watching in the 2023 session. Please scroll down to see current status of these bills as they make their way through the Legislature.
Learn more at GFAF in the News and by following us on Twitter @Ga_FAF and Facebook @GaFirstAmend.
Senate Bill 215 is one we’re still cautiously watching, but the bill is now a much narrower proposal. In SB 215’s latest version, redactions apply only to law enforcement officers, and “personally identifiable information” is limited to residential addresses or phone numbers. The bill also sets up a process for law enforcement officers to request redaction from certain public records. The current version of SB 215 does not contain previous language that would have gutted the Georgia Open Records Act. The bill still reduces public access to some information, but it is much less concerning.
Read more — SB 215: Invisibility cloak for public employees
House Bill 139 expands protections against disclosure of the personal information of law enforcement witnesses who testify during a case to include non-sworn law enforcement employees. The bill would also permit retired law enforcement personnel, including non-sworn employees, to redact their address, date of birth and phone number when providing such information to a criminal defendant. While there are good reasons for the protection of such information, notably the prevention of witness tampering, such information is not redacted for any other witness in a criminal case.
HB 165 would add an exception to the Open Records Act for the state Department of Natural Resources to refuse to disclose “the location or character of a historic resource” if doing so would create “a substantial risk of harm, theft, or destruction” to that resource.
HB 188 creates a classification system for sexual offenders based on a review by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. It further provides that these records can be designated as state secrets and shielded from the public, and it criminalizes both disclosing such secrets or causing them to be divulged—an expansive rule that could be used against journalists.
SB 11, or the “Georgia Fights Terrorism Act,” would expand the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s ability to investigate domestic terrorism, but the “domestic terrorism” label has in the past been misused to target protestors who are lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.
SB 59 extends the “open investigation” exception of the Open Records Act to inspector general investigative reports sent to the governor if they make a finding of government fraud, waste, abuse or corruption. The bill would provide the inspector general with discretion to redact names of complainants or witnesses, as well as facts that might compromise the identify of a complainant or witness. The redaction provision could be used very broadly.
SB 63 restricts the availability of bail for people charged with certain crimes, including domestic terrorism, rioting, inciting a riot, affray or unlawful assembly. This could be used to target protestors and would mean that people arrested while exercising their First Amendment rights could have to wait in jail, potentially for months or years, while awaiting trial if they were charged, even though other criminal defendants charged with similarly serious crimes would be eligible for bail.
SB 84 provides for greater penalties and investigative powers in cases of financial abuse or fraud perpetrated on elderly and disabled adults. However, all records provided to Adult Protective Services pursuant to such investigative powers would not be considered public records and, therefore, would not available under the Open Records Act.
HB 250 would impose regulations on social media companies that would significantly restrict the ability of platforms to remove content, such as misinformation, that violates the platform’s terms of service. Social media companies would be restricted to removing only “illegal” content, for example explicit threats of harm or defamatory statements. This bill would violate the First Amendment rights of the private companies that would be subject to the law by forcing them to platform speech that they do not want to host. Did not survive Crossover Day.
SB 33 creates a judicial petition process that would allow individuals to seek expungement of their involuntary hospitalization records so that they would not be available in background checks, such as those used for the purchase of firearms. Any records of the hearing to consider the request for expungement would be confidential and not available for public scrutiny. Did not survive Crossover Day.
SB 57 would legalize sports betting in Georgia and would create a registry of people who are banned from engaging in sports betting. However, that registry would be exempt from the Open Records Act. Did not survive Crossover Day.
SB 88 would prevent teachers and students from discussing anything related to sexuality and would prevent schools from changing a student’s name, sex or gender in their records without parental permission. Certain aspects of this bill would infringe on the First Amendment rights of teachers and school administrators. Did not survive Crossover Day.
SB 141 would prohibit teachers and school officials from encouraging a minor not to disclose to their parents that their perception of their gender “is inconsistent with [their] sex” and would require teachers and school officials to disclose to parents any information they learned related to a student’s perception that their gender “is inconsistent with [their] sex.” The latter aspect of the bill could violate the First Amendment by compelling speech, and, overall, the bill would chill free expression. Did not survive Crossover Day.
SB 154 would remove existing legal protections for school employees, which would open them up to potential liability for providing “obscenity” to minors. The bill would create a criminal liability for school employees, chilling their ability to provide access to appropriate resources to everyone in their schools. Did not survive Crossover Day.
SB 176 would add a new provision to the Open Records Act that prohibits government agencies from making public the personally identifying information of any judge, law enforcement officer, prosecuting attorney or public defender without their express written permission. This bill would greatly expand the confidentiality of government records, and the mandatory nature of this exception could make it effectively impossible for government agencies to provide large datasets of information, such as lists of outstanding water bills or voter rolls, because an agency might be concerned that some of the data pertained to judges, law enforcement officers, prosecutors or public defenders. Did not survive Crossover Day.
House Bill 196 would expand the application of the Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act to the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, which is currently shielded from Georgia’s transparency laws.
Read more — Growing mistrust instead of cannabis in Georgia
HB 269 would expand the Open Meetings Act’s provision for teleconference meetings to cover local workforce development boards.
Senate Bill 26 clarifies that when a meeting subject to the Open Meetings Act is held by teleconference, “members of the public must be afforded the means to participate fully in the same manner as if such members of the public were physically present.”
House Bill 110 provides for the Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia to create a database of civil forfeiture and requires law enforcement agencies to report all civil forfeiture proceedings to the institute within 30 days. It also gives the Georgia Attorney General the responsibility to enforce these provisions. All reports created pursuant to this Act would be public under the Open Records Act, enhancing transparency around civil forfeiture. Did not Survive Crossover Day.
HB 112 provides for counties or cities to create citizen review boards (including through public petition) that would have the power to investigate complaints of police misconduct, even for ongoing investigations. Complaint records maintained by such boards would be public records subject to the Open Records Act. Did not survive Crossover Day.
HB 232 requires an officer in charge of a penal institution to produce publicly available data concerning the health, safety or other conditions of detention of inmates at that institution (with personal identifying information of inmates removed from the records). This measure would allow greater scrutiny of penal institutions and would aid journalists in performing oversight of prisons. Did not survive Crossover Day.