SAVE THE DATE: Weltner Freedom of Information Award Banquet, Oct. 19

Event to honor the Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program and the late Judge Stephanie B. Manis of Fulton County Superior Court.

The Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program works to improve governance and transform citizens’ lives worldwide by providing governments with actionable advice and technical assistance that increase transparency and help citizens exercise their fundamental right to information. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is honoring that important work by naming the Atlanta-based program as recipient of the 2017 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award.

The foundation also is honoring the late Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie B. Manis with its Open Government Hero Award. Manis, who died in December, was an unwavering advocate of open records and open meetings during her years in the Office of the Georgia Attorney General and on the bench.

Both awards will be presented during the foundation’s annual Weltner evening banquet on Oct. 19 at the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta.

Laura Neuman, director of the Carter Center’s Global Access to Information Program, will accept the Weltner Freedom of Information Award and serve as the event’s keynote speaker. Manis’ family will accept the Open Government Hero Award in her honor.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Freedom of Information Award is named for Charles L. Weltner, a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court who championed freedom of information and ethics in state government. The annual Weltner Banquet provides financial support for the foundation’s narrow and essential mission: fighting for free speech, government transparency and access to public information in Georgia.

For information about becoming a 2017 banquet sponsor, please email info@gfaf.org.

Proposed rule change could restrict access to Georgia courts

Judicial council to meet Monday on citizen use of electronics in courtrooms.

July 20, 2017—A statewide judicial council is scheduled to meet Monday to consider a rule change that could result in less public access to courtrooms.

The Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia is meeting on St. Simons Island to evaluate proposed amendments to so-called “Rule 22.”

No texts or emails in Georgia courtrooms?

Rule 22 — officially “Uniform Superior Court Rule 22: Electronic and Photographic Recording of Judicial Proceedings”— 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, making them less welcoming to the public by restricting anyone other than lawyers from using phones or other electronic devices in the courtroom, even if the devices would not disrupt proceedings. For example, if revised as proposed, the rule would ban non-lawyers from using a computer to take notes or to silently send and receive texts or emails in the courtroom.

That’s contrary to the existing practice in Georgia and other states of encouraging 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 deter citizen access to courtrooms. Under the foundation’s proposal, silent use of portable electronic devices inside a courtroom would be presumptively permitted.

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.”

In submitting the foundation’s proposal, foundation board member and First Amendment attorney Peter Canfield told the council that the alternative proposal would make the rules “clearer and simpler” and ensure that they “serve, rather than conflict with, the state’s strong public policy in favor of open government.”

Media contact:

Kathy Brister, board member, Georgia First Amendment Foundation

kathybrister@yahoo.com / 404-394-6103

 

Q&A with Hollie Manheimer: Two decades of protecting the public’s right to know

Hollie Manheimer has been executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation since January 1996. This month she’s stepping down from the post, although she’ll continue as a volunteer with the foundation. Join us as we celebrate her years of service on May 23 at an evening event in Midtown Atlanta.

Over the past two decades, Manheimer helped orchestrate the foundation’s successful efforts to expand citizens’ access to public meetings, proceedings and records. She conducted hundreds of open records and open meetings workshops for citizens, public officials, law enforcement officers and journalists around the state. And she wrote so many letters of inquiry to help Georgia citizens and journalists gain access to public information that she long ago lost count. She took a few minutes to talk about some highlights of her GFAF career.

Hollie Manheimer

Q: You’ve been part of many open government successes in your years at the foundation. What’s something that stands out?

A: Creating the “Blue Book,” Georgia Law Enforcement and the Open Records Act, was a highlight of my career. It was a particular achievement because we were able to get everybody to come to the table. Just look at the list on the second page of the book (also listed on gfaf.org). Seven statewide law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies signed on. Their participation signals to local police that this is the law, and Georgia’s law enforcement leaders expect them to follow it.

Q: While you’ve helped many journalists gain access to public records and meetings over the years, you find citizen advocacy especially rewarding. Why?

A: Journalists have power. Citizens have power, too, but they may not know it. It’s very rewarding to help ordinary people understand that their government belongs to them. I want everyone to know that government information is our information.

Q: Do you think threats against First Amendment freedoms are larger today?

A: We’re talking about the First Amendment and government transparency more today, which is good. But the threats have always been there. The First Amendment is a set of rights that we constantly have to be vigilant about protecting. The reality is when people get enough power, they try to shield themselves from the oversight and scrutiny that’s provided for in the U.S. Constitution and spelled out in our laws.

Q: Do you see any areas for particular concern today?

A: Special interest groups — and not just the rich and connected people you imagine. It can be teachers, judges, anybody who wants to carve out exceptions for themselves in open government laws. Anytime anybody wants to curtail the Georgia Open Records Act, citizens should pay attention.

Q: Is there ever a moment when you think the work of advocating for government transparency will be complete?

A: Our democracy promotes open government through state and federal laws. But it also ensures we have a steady stream of newly elected and appointed public officials. As long as public officials change, our work to educate them on open government will never be done.

Q: Talk a little more about the importance of that educational work.

A: We need more training for public officials and agency employees about laws that ensure access to public records, meetings and court proceedings, as well as about laws that protect free speech. A better baseline of understanding would reduce government conflicts with citizens and the legal actions that emerge from battles over access. Even if we disagree on interpretations of the law, if we all have a baseline understanding of it, that would be good for both citizens and public officials.

Q: If someone wants to better educate themselves on open government laws in Georgia, what should they do?

A: Read our “Red Book” on Georgia’s Sunshine Laws (A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government). Read our “Green Book” on public schools and open records, as well as the “Blue Book” on law enforcement that I mentioned before. File an open records request to obtain a document that interests you, and see how the process works. And, of course, join the Georgia First Amendment Foundation as a member.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I am dedicated to these issues and have devoted my entire adult life to them, so I’ll continue to work with the foundation as a volunteer. But I’ll increase my other work as a judge in the DeKalb County Magistrate Court. I love the First Amendment, so I will also continue my private law practice in that area and other areas of civil work. And I’ll also keep working on developing my water-skiing skills.

 

Open government protections fared well in legislative session

There were a few nail-biting moments for government transparency advocates during this year’s state General Assembly session. But, in the end, lawmakers treaded lightly on Georgians’ rights to access government records, meetings and proceedings and to practice free speech.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation engaged with lawmakers on several legislative proposals, laying out the pros and cons for public access. Here’s a short list of what kept us busy until the end of the session:

House Bill 9/Senate Bill 45: Neither of these “upskirting” bills passed, but the General Assembly did add narrow language to Senate Bill 104 making it illegal to film someone under or through clothing. The language does not restrict legitimate newsgathering or videotaping. Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign the bill into law.

House Bill 15: The foundation fought to make sure this bill requiring electronic filing of court records contained protections for public access. The proposed legislation was amended repeatedly as it made its way through the House and Senate, but it failed to emerge from a conference committee on the last day of the session. Given that final versions of the bill potentially impeded free and immediate access to court records, even at the courthouse, the failure of the bill was a good result for Georgians. However, we expect the bill to emerge again in next year’s legislative session.

House Bill 75: This bill permits the state Division of Family and Children Services to redact portions of its records before providing them to the public. The allowable redactions relate to information provided by law enforcement or prosecuting agencies in pending investigations or prosecutions. It passed the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by the governor.

This bill is worrisome because it may limit disclosure of information in public DFACS records about children who die or are harmed while in DFACS custody. But its restrictions align with similar laws that apply to police records.

The bill’s proponents argued the law would help increase communication between DFACS and law enforcement agencies. The foundation will monitor future impacts of the law, watching for unnecessary restrictions to public access of DFACS records.

 House Bill 126: This bill reconfigures the Judicial Qualifications Commission, creating separate investigative and hearing panels to address alleged misconduct by judges. The bill also specifies transparency requirements requiring that the JQC make public:

  • Commission reports on informal dispositions of disciplinary matters; these reports are to be filed with the Georgia Supreme Court
  • Proceedings after formal charges are filed
  • Administrative matters of the commission.

Matters involving the alleged “incapacity” of a judge for health reasons will be sealed, but the records can be released by the commission under certain circumstances. The bill passed the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by the governor.

 House Bill 481: This bill prevents local governments from enacting future regulations that conflict with the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules limiting drone activity. The bill preserves the FAA and the state as rulemakers on drone usage in Georgia. It prevents the passage of conflicting local ordinances that could have complicated the use of drones for newsgathering and other activities in the public interest.

For a full recap of the bills we monitored throughout the session, including those that didn’t survive Crossover Day, check out our updated Legislative Watch.

Electronic filing bill remains top GFAF legislative concern; could erode public access to court records

Accessing court records could take longer and cost more if an electronic-filing measure making its way through the Georgia General Assembly passes in its current form. House Bill 15 tops the “negative” bills detailed in our updated Legislative Watch.

The bill requires electronic filing of most civil court records, but it contains no provision for protecting public access to such filings in a timely way — either at the courthouse or electronically.

Instead, it states that records are not subject to disclosure until physically accepted by a clerk – a provision that could delay access to public records.

In addition, the bill does not include a requirement that electronically filed records be available for viewing at the courthouse, something judicial rules now require as a minimum standard for electronic filing. The absence of this requirement could result in a charge for simply viewing electronic records, something that would be unprecedented in Georgia.

House Bill 15 should be modified to include minimum standards for electronic filing adopted by the Judicial Council of Georgia in 2014 and embraced by the Georgia Supreme Court. Those rules state that electronic documents must be publicly accessible upon filing for review at no charge on a public access terminal available at the courthouse during regular business hours.

Read our updated Legislative Watch to find out more about House Bill 15, including its sponsors, and get details on other proposals that survived crossover day in the Georgia General Assembly and their effects  — negative and positive — on the openness and transparency of government in Georgia.

 

International group explores government transparency

Kennesaw—Georgia First Amendment Foundation founding board member Carolyn Carlson recently welcomed visitors from Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia to Kennesaw State University for a session on how government transparency and access to public information support democracy.

The visitors, public officials, academics and open government advocates in their home countries, are participants in the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.

Pictured left to right: Fares Besrour, Chargé de Mission, Head of Government Cabinet, Head of the Government in Tunisia; Barbara Gainey, Carolyn Carlson and Dean Robin Dorff of KSU; Walaa Gadelkarim Mahmoud Osman, Director Manager, Partners for Transparency in Egypt; KSU President Sam Olens; Bassem Karray, Associate Professor of Public Law, University of Sfax in Tunisia; Ahmed Khorsheed Tawfeeq, Spokesman, Kurdistan Democratic Party, Kirkuk Office in Iraq; and Nadia Gouta Ep Hamdi, Head of Department, General Directorate of Regional Development, Ministry of Development, Investment and International Cooperation in Tunisia.

During their Feb. 13 visit to KSU, the group met with Carlson, director of the university’s Journalism and Emerging Media program; KSU President Sam Olens, former Georgia attorney general, an expert on the state’s open records and meetings laws and recipient of the foundation’s Weltner Award; Kerwin Swint, chair of the KSU Department of Political Science and International Affairs; and Kenneth White, an associate professor of criminal justice and political science who is a former board member of Common Cause Georgia.

“We had a robust discussion about our American democracy and how access to government records and activities was the key to our stability as a democracy that has survived for 250 years,” Carlson said.

Olens’ perspective as a former statewide elected official was of particular interest to the group. During the two-hour session, he explained the open government-related enforcement mechanisms of the Georgia attorney general’s office. Carlson described the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s mission and activities educating members of the public, journalists, lawyers and government officials about the state’s open records and open meetings laws. Swint discussed how the nonprofit Common Cause Georgia encourages public participation in democracy and pushes for accountability of public officials and institutions.

The international visitors will travel in the U.S. for several more weeks, seeking insights into how government transparency works in America.

2017 Legislative Watch list tracks government transparency, access bills

We’re finding plenty to keep an eye on in Georgia’s ongoing General Assembly session. Measures to make the pardon and parole process more transparent; better define accessibility of police body camera recordings; and reinforce openness of school accreditation records are positives. But we see major problems with a bill that would potentially conceal conflicts of interest for financial donors to rural hospitals. Download our full Legislative Watch list.

Ga. Supreme Court to weigh in on public access to hospital information

The Georgia Supreme Court has decided to hear arguments in an open records case involving the public’s right to know about how Northside Hospital transacts business. Northside was established by a public hospital authority to operate all its assets on the authority’s behalf, but Northside contends its transactions can be kept secret because it was created by the authority as a private nonprofit.

In June, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, the Georgia Press Association and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution filed a friend of the court brief asking the Court to take the case and reaffirm that private nonprofits acting as vehicles for public hospital authorities must comply with Georgia’s open government law. The foundation strongly believes that state law demands the operation of public assets be subject to public oversight.

The first court decision in the case, E. Kendrick Smith vs. Northside Hospital Inc., came last year. A Fulton County Superior Court judge ruled in Northside’s favor. The case went to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court ruling in a split decision. Now the state Supreme Court will weigh in; arguments are scheduled for April.

Get a detailed history of the case from Georgia Health News, and learn about its potential impact on newsgathering by reading the AJC’s Watchdog Blog.

Double your membership dollars — join now!

Our platinum sponsor CNN has pledged to match new member contributions — including membership fees — up to $5,000 before Dec. 31. So, you can multiply your support of the crucial open government and free speech work we do simply by joining now.

Memberships start at $50 for individuals and $100 for organizations. Benefits include open records and meetings training; legislative updates on key First Amendment issues; and connecting with other Georgia First Amendment Foundation members and supporters. Become a member today!

Legislative Watch: Looking ahead to 2017

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation spends 100 percent of our time advocating for and educating about access to public information, government transparency and free speech. Much of that work happens at the state General Assembly, where we fight for open government and unfettered newsgathering that benefits all Georgians.

The Georgia General Assembly convenes on Jan. 9. Here are our top priorities as the session approaches:

Advocating for transparency in policing

 Police are spending tax dollars to acquire body cameras, but then refusing to provide the video to the public. Police agencies are claiming it is their right to prevent the public from seeing the video for an indefinite period of time so long as they say an investigation is “open.” GFAF is working hard to make sure laws related to body cameras bring more transparency to policing across the state.

Urging openness for the state’s judicial watchdog

 A new constitutional amendment allows legislators to remake the state’s 40-year-old judicial watchdog agency. Lawmakers will appoint some Judicial Qualifications Commission members, and the state Senate will confirm all JQC appointments. In addition, the legislation behind the JQC changes states the findings and records of the commission “shall not be open to the public except as provided by the General Assembly.” We’re urging lawmakers to build openness and transparency into operations of the recreated JQC.

Exposing secret business deals

 The Georgia General Assembly has repeatedly passed legislation expanding the secrecy around the state’s negotiations with companies that want to put factories in Georgia. Government officials want to decide what is best for communities without consulting citizens. We’re advocating for Georgians’ right to know.

 Keeping information about public institutions open to the public

The Georgia General Assembly and the Georgia courts have repeatedly taken steps that erode transparency of public hospitals, law enforcement and other institutions. GFAF and First Amendment partners have taken action in the courts and in the Legislature to oppose this erosion of public access.

Speeding up access to public information

The Georgia General Assembly is delaying public and press access to records related to Georgia college sports. The public has a right to see for themselves what contracts are being signed, what misconduct has occurred and what actions have been taken. We’re working to prevent such long delays that the right to these records becomes meaningless.

Preventing the erasure of criminal histories

 Convicted criminals are increasingly being permitted to erase past criminal records. We’re fighting to make sure these “erasure statutes” do not leave Georgia businesses and citizens at risk of hiring employees who have been found guilty of serious crimes.

Promoting effective records management and reasonable access costs

 The rapid pace of digitization of public records has public agencies and institutions increasingly outsourcing their records management to commercial vendors. Without vigilance by GFAF, these vendors drive up cost of public records, thereby limiting access to private citizens who cannot pay commercial rates.

In addition, digitization has led to a change in some fees for record retrieval. Per-page fees have given way to “research” or “redaction” fees that can significantly drive up the cost of obtaining public records. GFAF is working to ensure public records are accessible to all citizens at a reasonable cost.

We’ll update our Legislative Watch as the General Assembly draws nearer and more bills are filed. Become a member and receive our e-mail newsletters with legislative updates and other First Amendment news.


SAVE THE DATE

Georgia First Amendment Foundation

Annual Legislative Breakfast

7:30-9 a.m., Jan. 26 at CNN

Free for members • $10 for nonmembers • Register now