2019 Weltner Banquet to honor legacy of late Ga. Supreme Court Chief Justice Harris Hines

Chief Justice Harold Melton will be the keynote speaker for the event, which will mark the foundation’s 25th anniversary with an award to GFAF co-founder Hyde Post.

Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Harris Hines, who died last fall, was praised for his judicial acumen, fairness and kindness. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation remembers him as a

The late Ga. Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Harris Hines is 2019’s Weltner Award honoree.

friend of our organization and our open government cause, and we are honoring his legacy with a posthumous Weltner Freedom of Information Award at our annual Weltner Banquet on Oct. 10.

Buy tickets now.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton, a close friend and former colleague of the late chief justice, will give the keynote address at the banquet.

This year also marks GFAF’s 25th anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, we will present our Founder’s

GFAF founding member Hyde Post

Award to Hyde Post, co-founder, board member and past president of the foundation, to recognize his many years of service to our organization and his tireless advocacy for open government in Georgia and across the country. Post was inducted into the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s Open Government Hall of Fame in April.

This year’s Weltner Banquet will take place at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 10, at the Silverbell Pavilion of the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta. See details below on how to become a Weltner Banquet sponsor.

Honoring Chief Justice Hines’ legacy

Hines, who retired from the bench in August 2018 at the age of 75, was a regular at our annual Weltner banquets, named for the late Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner, an unyielding champion of government transparency. Last year, Hines appeared in a video tribute to our 2018 honoree, Cobb Superior Court Senior Judge James Bodiford, whom we recognized for repeatedly protecting the public’s right to courtroom access, even as he presided over some of Georgia’s highest-profile criminal cases.

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.

Then-Justice Hines also wrote the Court’s unanimous opinion in Howard v. Sumter Free Press in 2000, which compelled the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office to comply with the state Open Records Act. The opinion rejected an allegation that the newspaper’s records requests were not bona fide because they were made verbally. As recently as early 2018, in Tucker v. Atwater, Chief Justice 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.

Chief Justice Hines was killed in a Nov. 4 car accident on I-85. He was en route to his home in Marietta from Newnan, where he had heard his granddaughter sing in a church choir. The day after his death, Georgia Supreme Court Presiding Justice David E. Nahmias gave a heartfelt statement about how much Hines would be missed.

GFAF President Richard T. Griffiths said, “Chief Justice Hines’ legacy of service is an inspiration to all of us who strive to make a difference in the lives of Georgians. We are grateful for his many years of support for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and look forward to welcoming his family and friends to celebrate of his life and legacy at our 2019 Weltner Banquet.”

Join the celebration as a sponsor

Join the celebration of Hines’ legacy and the foundation’s quarter century of essential work as a sponsor of this year’s Weltner Banquet. The annual fundraiser is the greatest source of regular financial support for the foundation’s mission to protect and expand government transparency, accountability journalism and free speech in Georgia.

Sponsorships are available at four levels:

  • Platinum—Eight tickets with preferred VIP seating for the dinner, premium recognition as a host, including signage and a full-page advertisement in the program; all benefits of being an institutional GFAF member, including legislative updates and one complimentary open government workshop for your organization or company, $10,000.
  • Gold—Eight tickets with preferred VIP seating for the dinner, premium recognition as a host, including signage and a full-page advertisement in the program, $5,000.
  • Silver—Six tickets for the dinner, recognition and signage, and a half-page advertisement in the program, $2,500.
  • Bronze—Four tickets for the dinner, recognition and signage and a quarter-page advertisement in the program, $1,500.

To become a sponsor, please call Lenora Kopkin at 678-395-3618 (office) or 770-331-2524 (mobile) or email info@gfaf.org. Sponsorship deadline is Sept. 24.

Learn more about GFAF’s Weltner Award, named for the late Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner, an unyielding champion of government transparency, and see a list of past honorees.

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

Teaching the public’s right to know

Richard T. Griffiths

Barely a week goes by that you don’t hear about a public agency or official in Georgia falling short of the transparency required by the state’s Sunshine Laws.

Some have almost certainly been intentional violations in which public officials were caught red-handed, deliberately thwarting the public’s right to know.  But many violations are unintended, the result of well-meaning public officials simply not understanding what is required of them.

Hunger for understanding the Sunshine Laws was on display in October in Alpharetta when more than 40 public officials from as far as Gainesville – many records custodians – attended another Georgia First Amendment Foundation training session explaining the requirements and intricacies of Georgia’s open government laws.  The officials showed they were enthusiastic about the benefits of open government and anxious to do the right thing.

The same day as that Alpharetta training event, supporters of the foundation were gathering in Atlanta for our annual fundraiser, the Weltner Award Banquet, where we honored Cobb County Senior Judge Jim Bodiford for his extraordinary career-long efforts to keep courts open and transparent.

But it was also the fundraising component of the evening that was extraordinary.  Donors pledged to write checks for more than $136,000 for the foundation’s work, donations that will allow us to shift our training programs into overdrive.

AJC Editor Kevin Riley and WSB News Director Misti Turnbull announce $80,000 donation at the foundation’s 2018 Weltner Award Banquet.

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. The news organizations, both part of the Cox Media Group, in April filed a complaint with the Georgia attorney general alleging the City of Atlanta maintained “a culture of political interference” with open records requests under the administration of former mayor, Kasim Reed.

The AJC and WSB settled with the city in early October. Under the terms, 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 money will now be used by the foundation to provide transparency training for public officials, members of the public and journalists statewide.

We offer training like the session we delivered in Alpharetta to citizens, public servants and journalists all over the state, including the City of Atlanta.

We were also delighted to announce during our banquet that the Georgia First Amendment Foundation received funding to republish significantly updated versions of our guidebooks that detail the public’s right to access its government under state law. The Department of Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, through its William S. Morris Chair in News Strategy and Management, will provide $10,000 to update the books. The Georgia Press Association is contributing $1,000 toward the effort.

The guidebooks are key tools of the foundation’s open government work in Georgia. They include the Red Book, A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government, and the Blue Book, a Law Enforcement Officer’s Guide to Open Records in Georgia. We last updated those books in 2014 and we’ve used them extensively in our training of public officials. The new funds also will help us create a new Yellow Book, A Guide to Open Records and Courts in Georgia, detailing transparency requirements in the workings of the state’s legal system.

Our next major event is our Legislative Breakfast near the start of the General Assembly session, and we are in the process of scheduling training events throughout 2019 for the public and government officials.  If you would like to schedule training on open government in your area, send us an email and we’ll figure out how to work you into the schedule.  Keep up with our news on gfaf.org and via our e-newsletters.

As Judge Jim Bodiford reminded us at the Weltner Banquet, quoting Georgia’s constitution: “’Public officers are the trustees and servants of the people and are at all times amenable to them.’ That’s something that we could probably read and review every day.”

Wise words from Jim Bodiford.

We hope you will engage with the foundation as we take on this important educational work.

Wishing you the best for the holiday season,

Richard T. Griffiths

President, Georgia First Amendment Foundation

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.

Georgia First Amendment Foundation names Judge James Bodiford 2018 Weltner Award honoree

Cobb County senior judge recognized for keeping courts open during some of the state’s highest-profile criminal cases.

Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge James Bodiford has earned a reputation for protecting the public’s right to courtroom access while presiding over some of Georgia’s highest-profile criminal cases. Rather than restrict the public and media from attending those trials, Bodiford made provisions to keep the proceedings open — and maintained an orderly courtroom. He encourages other judges to open their courtrooms, as well, arguing that our judicial system works best when it’s accessible and transparent to citizens.

Judge James Bodiford

The open-courts commitment Bodiford has upheld over his more than 30-year career is why the Georgia First Amendment Foundation is honoring him with our 2018 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award. Bodiford will receive the award at the foundation’s annual Weltner Banquet at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 17, at the Silverbell Pavilion of the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta.

A prime example of Bodiford’s dedication to courtroom access was the State of Georgia v. Ray Brent Marsh. In 2002, a tip led investigators to a northwest Georgia crematory where 334 corpses were discovered. Marsh, the crematory operator, was charged, and a local judge immediately entered a sweeping gag order that created chaos. Hundreds of families from three states were desperate for information about the remains of their loved ones, and people across the country closely followed the case.

The gag order left the Georgia Bureau of Investigation unable to provide basic information to families and the public. Bodiford was asked to take control of the case, and one of his first acts was to announce that he would be handling it in an open way, giving law enforcement and the media the latitude needed to keep the public informed. National, state and local media reported on every hearing. The public had full visibility into the legal process, which ultimately resulted in a plea that sent Marsh to prison.

Bodiford stayed true to these First Amendment principles in other high-profile cases, as well, including the murder trials of courthouse shooter Brian Nichols; Lynn Turner, who poisoned her husband with anti-freeze; and Fred Tokars, a one-time Atlanta lawyer and prosecutor who had his wife executed by a hit man in front of his young children. Bodiford kept proceedings open, gavel to gavel, amid constant media coverage. As the jury heard evidence, so did the public — a demonstration of the power of open courtrooms.

Bodiford’s record reflects an understanding of how modern media coverage provides a tremendous opportunity for the judiciary to make court proceedings more accessible and understandable to citizens. Even under the harsh scrutiny of high-profile trials, his commitment to transparency has not wavered.

A Cobb County native, Bodiford stepped down from daily trial work in 2014 and began serving as a senior judge. In addition to educating Georgia judges about the importance of courtroom access, he has traveled to Estonia, Bosnia and the Republic of Georgia to teach judges in those countries about how the American justice system works.

Learn more about GFAF’s Weltner Award, named for the late Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner, an unyielding champion of government transparency, and see a list of past honorees.

Atlanta mayor to address 1st Amendment conference co-sponsored by the foundation

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms will be the keynote speaker at the Feb. 23 Georgia Bar Media & Judiciary Conference focused on First Amendment issues and government transparency.

Keisha Lance Bottoms

Bottoms, who participated in the conference as a candidate last year and took office Jan. 2, is expected to address her administration’s perspective on government openness and accessibility to citizens and the media.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is a co-sponsor of the conference, scheduled 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 23, at the State Bar of Georgia Conference Center, 104 Marietta St. NW in downtown Atlanta. The annual gathering, in its 27th year, draws judges, attorneys, journalists and citizens. On the agenda:

  • A discussion of changes ahead for the Georgia Supreme Court and the state’s judicial system. Panelists will include Presiding Justice Harold Melton and retired Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, among others.
  • A forum of candidates in the race for the governor’s office.
  • A conversation with U.S. Supreme Court experts and advocates on how gerrymandering and other First Amendment issues are likely to fare in the Court this term — and the possible ramifications for Georgia.
  • An exploration of cultural challenges to the First Amendment emerging from generational changes, the power of “fake news” and more.
  • Scenarios of how sexual harassment claims could play out in companies, courts and the halls of government in Georgia.

In addition, Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Political Rewind” host Bill Nigut and his team of pundits and prognosticators will talk politics in a session broadcast live from the conference.

Find the complete agenda, a full list of sponsors and registration information at http://www.iclega.org/programs/9778.html. The fee for non-lawyers is $25. Attorneys may register in advance for $155 or at the door for $230; attorneys will receive continuing legal education (CLE) hours for attending. The admission fee includes lunch and parking.

Ga. Supreme Court order allows judicial discretion over electronics in courtrooms

High court decision keeps current recording rules in place and authorizes trial judges to permit use of electronic devices for non-recording uses.

The Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday 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.

The Court’s order, which takes effect May 1, keeps the so-called Rule 22 largely the same for professional media and citizens using cameras in courtrooms. As happens today, journalists and members of the public must request permission to record or photograph judicial proceedings. A judge must provide detailed rationale for denying cameras in the courtroom — and only after holding a hearing on the issue.

The new rule gives a judge leeway to let citizens use phones, computers and tablets in the courtroom to type and text, but the judge has to specifically permit it — orally, in writing or by posting such a policy in their courtroom. Otherwise, the public has to keep electronic devices turned off in the courtroom.

At the same time, the rule gives attorneys appearing before the court wide latitude to use electronic devices for everything from audio and video recordings to taking notes. A lawyer must announce to the courtroom that a recording is being made, and the recording can only be used afterward for legal proceedings.

“On the whole, the new Rule 22 aligns with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s request that courtrooms in the state remain open to the public,” said Richard Griffiths, president of the foundation’s board of directors.

“We wish the rule had embraced a system that automatically allowed courtroom observers to type and text in courtrooms in a non-disruptive way, but the foundation appreciates the Supreme Court’s decision to reject the outright ban that had been proposed by others,” Griffiths said. “The new rule makes clear that individual judges may routinely allow this use of technology in their courtrooms. That’s a step in the right direction.”

GFAF’s Legislative Watch: Bad bills and unintended consequences

By Tom Clyde

Protecting Georgians’ right to know about their government requires particular diligence this time of year. The General Assembly is in session.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s mission to watch for and fight against any legislative reduction in the public’s access to government records, meetings and proceedings is one of our most important responsibilities. But the job is not easy. Bad legislation comes in many forms.

Sometimes it looks like Senate Bill 331, which proposes letting the Georgia Lottery Corporation keep the identity of lottery winners secret forever. Clearly, letting a government agency hand out millions of dollars to private citizens with no public record is a bad idea.

More often, however, a bill’s negative impact on transparency is not readily apparent. In good faith, a lawmaker may propose legislation without even anticipating how it could erode government transparency. These are the situations in which the foundation’s 24 years of experience encouraging greater transparency and explaining the unintended consequences of legislative actions comes into play. Our most important roles during the General Assembly session are as watchdog and educator. We look for any proposed legislation that could reduce Georgians’ access to the workings of their government, and we flag these problems for lawmakers.

Here’s a current example. Senate Bill 311 appears to be a well-meaning effort, from a frequent advocate for government openness, to make the audio recordings of court reporters available to the public.  The bill seems to be aimed at fixing a problem created when the Georgia Supreme Court recently held such recordings are not official court records and, therefore, are not required to be made available to the public. The effect of the Court’s decision has broad implications, but one clear outcome has been that producers of popular courtroom podcasts have no guaranteed access to recordings — usually paid for by taxpayer dollars — that provide audio records of criminal trials.

But in an effort to fix that problem, Senate Bill 311 would radically change the way citizens get court records — all court records, not just recordings. The bill would bring court records under Georgia’s Open Records Act, which, unfortunately, is littered with exceptions, fees and opportunities for delay. The bill needs to be narrowed under the principle of “do no harm.” Otherwise, we are better off with our current laws. We will work with the Legislature to shape the bill so it more closely aligns with First Amendment standards.

Thank you for your support of the foundation and our mission. Know that we are watching and will keep you posted on what’s happening under the Gold Dome. We appreciate that you care about government transparency as much as we do.

Tom Clyde, a GFAF board member and co-chair of the foundation’s Legal Committee, is a First Amendment attorney and partner at Kilpatrick Townsend.

Superior Court judges approve rule change that narrows electronics use in courtrooms

Georgia Supreme Court still has say over whether change to ‘Rule 22’ will take effect.

The Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia has approved a change that would keep existing protocols for news cameras in courtrooms, but make it harder to type, text and tweet during proceedings.

At a Wednesday meeting on St. Simons Island, the council voted to change the so-called “Rule 22” to presumptively restrict the use of laptop computers, smartphones and other portable electronics in Superior Court courtrooms statewide. The rule change would create a less welcoming environment for anyone, other than a lawyer, who wants to use phones or other electronic devices in the courtroom — even if the devices would not disrupt proceedings.

To be clear: The rule change would not alter how news cameras may be used in Superior Court. To shoot video today, a journalist must request permission under the existing Rule 22, which covers electronic and photographic recording of judicial proceedings. What would change for journalists — and citizens — is the ability to use an electronic device to take notes, send updates or even look at emails without first obtaining judicial permission.

“The new rule ostensibly recognizes changes in technology that could jeopardize the fairness of judicial proceedings, but in reality it just makes the courts less open,” reported The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Chris Joyner.

But, as Joyner wrote, the rule change isn’t a done deal. The Georgia Supreme Court still must approve the rule change and has the authority to “change the rule or send it back,” Jane Hansen, spokeswoman for the state’s high court, told the AJC. The process doesn’t have a firm timeline. “It will be over when this court says, ‘Here’s the rule,’” Hansen said.

Rule 22 was put in place in 1985, when Georgia was at the forefront of efforts to make court proceedings and records more open to the public. Back then, Rule 22 was hailed as a model for how to encourage effective radio and television coverage of state proceedings. But the rule was last updated decades ago, before technology advancements led to the development of smartphones and other camera-equipped portable electronic devices now in the hands of most journalists and citizens.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation opposes the Council of Superior Court Judges’ rule change. In June, the foundation submitted an alternative proposal that would update the rule but not complicate citizen access to courtrooms. On Monday, foundation board member Hyde Post attended a Council of Superior Court Judges committee meeting in St. Simons to explain the foundation’s concerns. He argued in favor of the presumption that silent use of electronic devices should be permitted in Georgia Superior Court courtrooms.

As the state Supreme Court evaluates the change to Rule 22, the foundation will continue to advocate for unimpeded public access to Georgia courtrooms and proceedings.

Update: Proposed rule change could restrict access to Georgia courts

Council of Superior Court Judges to vote by Wednesday on whether to curb electronics in courtrooms.

Georgia courts are one step closer to becoming less accessible to the public.

On Monday, at a meeting on St. Simons Island, members of the uniform rules committee of a state judicial council voted to embrace rule changes that would presumptively restrict the use of laptop computers, smartphones and other portable electronic devices in courtrooms statewide.

The likely effect: a less welcoming environment for anyone, other than a lawyer, who wants to use phones or other electronic devices in the courtroom — even if the devices would not disrupt proceedings.

The proposed change to the so-called “Rule 22” is expected to go before the full Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia by Wednesday for a final vote, according to council staff. Approval is anticipated.

Rule 22 covers electronic and photographic recording of judicial proceedings. It was enacted in 1985, when Georgia was at the forefront of efforts to make court proceedings and records more open to the public. Back then, Rule 22 was hailed as a model for how to encourage effective radio and television coverage of state proceedings. But the rule was last updated decades ago, before technology advancements led to the development of smartphones and other camera-equipped portable electronic devices now in the hands of most citizens.

In seeking to update the rule, the council has said it aims to establish a procedure for all citizens, not just the media, to request permission to record judicial proceedings. But some of the proposed changes to Rule 22 would take Georgia courts in the other direction. For example, if revised as proposed, the rule would presumptively ban non-lawyers from using a computer to take notes or to silently send and receive texts or emails in the courtroom.

The existing practice in Georgia and other states encourages judges to manage proceedings in ways that best serve the public interest and open government. In a number of states silent and non-disruptive use of electronic devices in courtrooms is expressly permitted.

In June, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation submitted an alternative proposal that would update the rule but not complicate citizen access to courtrooms. At Monday’s meeting, foundation board member Hyde Post explained the foundation’s concerns about the proposed rule changes and argued in favor of the presumption that silent use of electronic devices should be permitted.

“In other states, they have accepted evolving communications technology as a given,” Post said. “They have suggested that to try and ban electronics use wastes a lot of the courts’ energy on policing and ultimately will fail as policy. Instead, judges in these states, like Utah, start with the premise that a person should be permitted to silently use an electronic device in the courtroom. If a judge perceives a problem, the judge has the authority to restrict that usage if he or she deems it would disrupt the proceedings, interfere with administration of justice, cause security problems and so forth.”

Following this model, under the foundation’s proposal, judges could make exceptions, but only “as appropriate to maintain safety, decorum and order, and protect the integrity of the proceedings.” The judge would be required to “bear in mind the state’s longstanding policy favoring open judicial proceedings and anticipate that reporters and other public observers seated in the courtroom may properly use such devices to prepare and post online accounts and commentary during the proceedings.”

Several judges at the committee hearing expressed particular concern about citizens’ smartphone use in the courtroom. Judges recounted anecdotes in which gang members filmed witnesses in court. The videos were posted online and those witnesses were threatened or assaulted, the judges said.

Committee members contended that a presumptive ban on the use of electronic devices would enable better management of courtrooms. If someone wanted to bring a laptop or other electronic device to use in the courtroom, they might be permitted to use it, but they would need to file a Rule 22 request first.

Media contact:

Kathy Brister, board member, Georgia First Amendment Foundation

kathybrister@yahoo.com / 404-394-6103