How Senate Bill 59 will protect the bad guys

By Richard T. Griffiths 

Nightclubs catering to underage teens, a significant security breach at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, a con artist ripping off brides-to-be. Each one was exposed through the work of undercover journalists in Georgia who made secret recordings. The recordings both proved and vividly illustrated the

Richard T. Griffiths, Georgia First Amendment Foundation president

shenanigans, leading to change and significant action.

Recording in secret is a tool journalists use to help them protect the public’s interest and uncover the less savory parts of our society. For most news organizations, going undercover is reserved for the most difficult stories and often means some personal risk for the journalists.

Right now, in Georgia and 37 other states, that kind of investigative journalism is legal. Only one participant in a conversation needs to agree to a recording that secretly captures evidence of bad behavior. Georgia’s current law matches federal statutes.

But a bill proposed by state Senate Rules Committee Chair Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, would change that. His bill, Senate Bill 59, would require that all parties agree to being recorded. It would change Georgia from what is called a “one-party consent state” to an “all-party consent state.”

Why would lawmakers propose or support such a change? Here’s the background:

A recording last year of Republican gubernatorial front-runner Casey Cagle seriously damaged the then-lieutenant governor’s campaign. The secret recording was made by another gubernatorial candidate, Clay Tippins. In it, Cagle could be heard saying he supported “bad” policy because it would hurt another candidate in the race. The embarrassing recording was made public during Cagle’s GOP runoff against Brian Kemp; voters resoundingly rejected Cagle.

The power of that recording got lawmakers’ attention. Now some want to make such recordings illegal, and in the process they would make it a criminal act for journalists to use one-party recordings to expose wrongdoers.

But it’s not just journalists who would become criminals.

  • A domestic abuse victim who records threats or abuse on a concealed mobile phone would be a criminal, too. The illegal recording might be thrown out as evidence in court. And the victim of abuse could actually end up being prosecuted.
  • Even going live on Facebook could create risks. Would everyone being recorded have to agree before the recording is posted? Would video of a street-corner shouting match cross a legal line? Would police have the only authority to record video of a traffic stop?
  • And what about those doorbell cameras? Would recording a conversation with a suspicious visitor at your door be illegal? Would your effort to fight crime by posting that video to alert your neighbors now itself be a crime?
  • And if you recorded a scammer who keeps calling an elderly relative offering high-cost services they don’t need, that could be illegal, too.

This bill would take away from Georgia citizens’ ability to protect themselves.

The only people in Georgia who would benefit from Senate Bill 59 are bad guys who are likely to be embarrassed by or even imprisoned because of undercover recordings. For the millions of Georgians who don’t break the law, don’t do or say things they shouldn’t, there’s no reason for this misguided proposal.

Richard T. Griffiths is president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

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.