Do you want accountable government? You should support local journalism

By Richard T. Griffiths

Richard T. Griffiths, Georgia First Amendment Foundation president

Here’s what happens to communities when local journalism collapses: Taxpayers pay more and know less.

When local newspapers shut down, county payrolls swell, jumping $1.4 million within a year of a newspaper closing. Taxpayers pay more in taxes—an increase of about $85 per capita. It costs more to borrow money for government projects like roads and schools. But these distressing pocketbook issues, documented by researchers at University of Illinois at Chicago and Notre Dame, aren’t the only bad news.

When people live in news deserts, voter participation falls off dramatically, as researchers from the University of Texas and Cleveland State University found. Democracy takes a hit.

That’s why it was so alarming when this message popped up on the website of the Waycross Journal-Herald this fall: “Stop the Presses. The Waycross Journal-Herald, which has been owned and operated by the Williams family since 1916, will cease publication as of September 30th.”

And why it was such a relief when owners of The Brantley Beacon in Nahunta bought the Waycross Journal-Herald a few weeks later and began operating it as a weekly publication. Southeast Georgia got a reprieve.

Local journalism is disappearing in Georgia

But let’s face it. The Fourth Estate — the constitutionally recognized protector of the public interest guaranteed by the First Amendment — is no longer there in many parts of Georgia. Even in bigger communities, local journalism is wilting as social media and search engines gobble up ad dollars and redistribute news content for free.

This presents challenges not only for the media business, but also for local and state governments. Concerned citizens who don’t have a news surrogate are increasingly seeking public documents and demanding access to public meetings. We at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation know this because those citizens are asking for copies of our Red Book, Sunshine Laws: A Guide to Open Government in Georgia. They’re using our sample letters to draft their requests in line with the state’s Open Records Act.

And when they get confusing responses from their government officials — or no response at all — they’re contacting us or the office of state Attorney General Chris Carr for help. The attorney general is responsible for enforcing Georgia’s Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act, and Carr exercised that authority earlier this year when his office filed the first-ever criminal charges for open records violations against a former City of Atlanta press secretary.

Who enforces transparency for state agencies?

That case, now playing out in court, highlights one of the key issues we at the foundation see emerging in the 2020 General Assembly session that will kick off in January.

When the state attorney general fights against Open Records Act violations committed by a local government officials, it’s not simple, but it is straightforward. The state’s highest-ranking lawyer is fighting to uphold state laws. But what happens when the open government dispute is between a citizen or a news organization and a state agency? The AG’s office might issue an opinion that supports transparency before the dispute results in litigation. But once court papers are filed, the attorney general’s role must be to defend the state agency. It’s Carr’s job to do so. It’s in the state constitution.

The foundation would like to challenge Attorney General Carr and his terrific team of attorneys — who played an important role in checking the legal facts in our recently updated Red Book — to think a bit about how we might ease that potential conflict. Is there a mechanism that could be created in those cases so the official responsible for enforcing open records laws is not in the position of having to defend a state agency for not following the law? We at the foundation believe it is worthwhile for our state lawmakers and other officials to consider solutions.

Keeping Georgians informed and holding the powerful accountable

And as the legislative session draws near, we have a challenge for the voters, taxpayers, businesspeople and elected officials who benefit from accountability journalism in their local communities. Recognize the value journalism delivers, and get engaged. Buy a newspaper. Subscribe to a local news site. Watch your local evening news. Contribute to the public radio and television stations that keep you informed. If you don’t like a story, say so. But don’t dismiss it as fake news until you’ve really explored what the reporters and editors in your communities are doing to keep you in the know and hold the powerful accountable.

Otherwise, here’s a glimpse of things to come. In the waning days of the last legislative session, six state representatives rolled out House Bill 734 — the so-called “Ethics in Journalism Act.” The bill calls for a journalism oversight board and for accreditation of all journalists working for news organizations in Georgia. There’s even a misguided twist on Georgia’s open government laws, where interview subjects would have the right to all outtakes and interview transcripts within three days of an interview. Mind you, this is coming from the only public officials in Georgia who have specifically exempted themselves from Georgia’s Open Records Act — that’s right, our state Sunshine Laws don’t apply to the General Assembly.

Why do legislators want to make news less available?

It’s doubtful that this bill, as written, would make it through the Legislature. And if it did, the judges and justices in our courts would probably find it unconstitutional. But it’s still very, very troubling.

That’s because House Bill 734 was proposed by six Georgia lawmakers who have standing in the communities they serve: a businessman, a pharmacist, a marketing consultant, a lawyer, a retired county agent and a real estate developer. A few years ago, no one of their stature would have dared propose such a bill. They would never have wanted to go home and explain why they were taking legislative steps to reduce the public’s access to legitimate news and information.

Now, in the siloed, algorithm-driven world of news via social media, these lawmakers’ views on journalism mirror opinions held by a third of Americans — nearly half of Republicans — who agree with the president of the United States that the media is “the enemy of the American people.”

Core principles of democracy

Those of us who believe in accountability journalism and open and transparent government as core principles in the preservation of our democracy must make our case to these lawmakers and the citizens they represent. We must work much harder to explain how a robust media helps Georgians stay healthier and safer, keeps watch over taxpayer dollars, follows the trail of corruption and champions the public’s right to know.

News deserts devolve into democracy deserts. That’s why we must cherish and protect our rights to government access, support accountability journalism in our communities and be grateful that the well of local news isn’t running dry in places like Waycross.

Richard T. Griffiths will become president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation on Jan. 1, 2020.

GFAF’s new Red Book lets the sunshine in

By Richard T. Griffiths

Let’s all sing together: “Let the sunshine in!” As a group of us huddled in a conference room preparing a sixth edition of our Red Book, the lyrics of a song from the 1967 musical Hair bubbled up in my consciousness, with its warning about how, “Silence tells me secretly ev’rything, ev’rything.”

The resounding chorus answers: “Let the sunshine in! Let the sunshine in!”

Richard T. Griffiths, Georgia First Amendment Foundation president

While I doubt many Georgia state representatives were thinking about that musical when our state’s open records and meetings laws were written, the Legislature essentially codified the sentiment of that chorus.

So, why is this important?

Fundamental to a healthy democracy is the public’s ability to make good decisions based on good information. For the public to get good information, government must be transparent, even if sometimes that is uncomfortable for the public officials in whom we have placed our trust.

Over the years, Georgia’s public officials have understood the need for transparency. The result is the collection of laws detailed and explained in our latest edition of the Red Book. Officially titled Sunshine Laws: A Guide to Open Government in Georgia, the book arms you with tools to exercise your right to obtain public records and attend meetings where decisions are made. For public officials, it provides a guide on how best to help citizens access the information they already own.

Here’s what is new about the 2019 Red Book:

  • It contains the latest versions of Georgia’s open records and meetings statutes, which reflect some minor legislative changes since 2012. It also includes references to recent court rulings that support Georgia’s government transparency laws.
  • We’ve revised our recommendations on how to ask for public information, both through tips aimed at making the process less adversarial and in form letters that cover requests for increasingly prevalent digital records.
  • You’ll find an updated list of resources in the back.
  • And, finally, because none of us are getting any younger, we made the type a bit bigger. The 2019 Red Book is much easier to read, especially when the sun is not shining or when we have a song stuck in our heads.

GFAF_RedBookCover_2019All Georgia First Amendment Foundation members will soon be getting a copy of the Red Book in the mail. So, ensure you receive one and support the foundation’s important work at the same time by becoming a member at any level. Bulk purchases of the book cost a nominal per-copy fee of $2.

We at the foundation would like to thank the Office of the Attorney General of Georgia for working with us on the substance of the book. We also are grateful to the William S. Morris Chair in News Strategy and Management at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the Georgia Press Association and Cox Media Group for providing vital funding for producing this new edition.

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

Expanded GFAF government transparency outreach hopscotches across Georgia

Next open government training May 15 at Atlanta Press Club

A Decatur County lawman laments the time he spends redacting police body-camera video to protect the privacy of children and other bystanders. A newly elected Georgia mayor wonders why personnel records are available to the public. And at a gathering of public information officers, many want to know if they should archive local government social media posts.

These are the government transparency issues public officials and the people they represent are asking, and the Georgia First Amendment Foundation is helping cut through the complexities during statewide travels this year. We’re delivering training on Georgia’s open records and open meetings laws and promoting the benefits of government transparency as public information goes increasingly digital.

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Want to attend one of our training sessions? Join us for Government Transparency in Georgia: What You Need to Know on May 15, an event in partnership with the Atlanta Press Club. It’s free and open to all who register.

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From Athens to Tifton, Atlanta to Savannah and about a dozen other stops in between, GFAF board members are handing out our signature guides to open government and encouraging a spirit of cooperation among government officials, the public and journalists. Our ramped up efforts this year are made possible in large part through a Cox Media Group grant provided to the foundation last fall.

We provided training at the Atlanta Regional Commission’s gathering of metro Atlanta public information officers. We audited an open records training session at the Georgia Municipal Association’s Mayors’ Day conference and met new city officials at GMA’s Newly Elected Officials conference.

Our board members also have given open government presentations this year at the University of Georgia, Augusta University and Georgia State University College of Law. We’ve talked to records custodians from a local chapter of the American Records Management Association and to lawyers at gatherings held by the State Bar of Georgia and county bar associations.

GFAF board members Kathy Brister and Jim Zachary speak with Stacy Jones of UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government at April county commissioner conference.

At the Association County Commissioners of Georgia annual conference in Savannah in late April, we answered commissioners’ questions, handed out our open government guides and promoted our training at a booth tucked between vendors Radarsign and Georgia Safe Sidewalks.

Participating in the county commissioner conference put us in front of 700 attendees, a large audience filled with the elected officials we want to reach with our open government message and educational opportunities. In June, we’ll provide open meetings training and staff a booth at the Georgia Municipal Association Annual Convention, which anticipates attendance from as many as 2,400 city officials from across Georgia.

We also have this year’s Georgia Press Association annual conference and the Georgia Association of Broadcasters annual convention on our calendar. And we’re sponsoring events in partnership with the Atlanta Press Club—supporting the groups that also support our First Amendment mission.

Our training is provided by First Amendment attorneys and seasoned journalists who serve on our board or committees. You are welcome to request a training session for your group, and we’ll do our best to accommodate.

 

Charges filed in Atlanta transparency case demonstrate perils of violating Georgia’s Open Records Act

‘These are the people’s records, and the public deserves access to them,’ says Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard T. Griffiths.

For the first time ever, an alleged violation of Georgia’s Open Records Act has led to criminal charges. On Feb. 11, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced plans to prosecute Jenna Garland, who served as press secretary under former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Garland is accused of intentionally delaying the release of public records that contained information potentially damaging to city officials. The alleged actions were documented in text messages in which Garland directed a subordinate to “be as unhelpful as possible,” “drag this out” and “provide the information in the most confusing format available” in response to records requests from WSB-TV.

Richard T. Griffiths, Georgia First Amendment Foundation president

“In part, this prosecution was made inevitable by the clear documentation of the obstruction,” said Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard T. Griffiths. “Many other cases where officials are slow to respond, impose outrageous fees or claim spurious exemptions are harder to take on. The attorney general’s office also regularly weighs in on the side of open government to discourage these less obvious tactics.

“The decision to prosecute in the City of Atlanta case sends a clear message that public officials in Georgia violate the open records laws at their peril. We at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation commend Attorney General Carr for taking such a strong stand for open government. These are the people’s records, and the public deserves access to them — even if those records are embarrassing to public officials,” Griffiths said.

Current Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council in September passed a sweeping ordinance that institutes a transparency officer, open government training for all city officials, a website to track open records compliance and penalties for city officials who don’t comply. Griffiths said if Atlanta lives up to these promises to increase transparency, the city could become a national model for openness.

Griffiths also pointed out that while bad actors grab the headlines, most state and local government officials in Georgia respect and comply with the Open Records Act. “As we have seen from the training sessions that the foundation puts on, many public officials and records custodians are anxious to learn the details of the law so they can do the right thing.”

Watch Griffiths’ March 8, 2018, interview with WSB-TV in which he called for the attorney general to investigate the City of Atlanta’s potential Open Records Act violations.

 

State immigration board agrees to improve transparency

Following foundation’s court filing supporting City of Decatur lawsuit, board resolves open records and meetings concerns

Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board pledged to operate more transparently as part of a court settlement with the City of Decatur and the law firm that represents it, ending a dispute that has lingered since 2017.

In a consent order, the board agreed to post meeting schedules and summaries online and otherwise comply with the state’s open meetings and open records acts. The board approved the settlement at a special called meeting Jan. 8 and later posted a summary of what transpired.

The settlement came three weeks after the Georgia First Amendment Foundation joined the Southern Poverty Law Center in a friend-of-the-court brief that supported the Morton, Wilson, & Downs law firm’s suit and contended the Immigration Enforcement Review Board was not following the state’s open records laws, as it claimed.

The origins of the case stretch back to November 2017 when Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, then a gubernatorial hopeful, filed a complaint with the board against Decatur. His complaint alleged the city failed to properly cooperate with federal immigration law enforcement authorities. Cagle did not publicly push the case after he lost the Republican primary runoff in July.

Immigration Enforcement Review Board members in 2018.

The immigration board, whose members are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the state House of Representatives, reviews complaints alleging local governments are not complying with state immigration laws.

In addition to highlighting transparency violations, the dispute between Decatur and the board drew attention to board members staying beyond their term limits, which prompted Gov. Nathan Deal to name replacements.

 

New City of Atlanta open records approach a ray of sunshine

By Jim Zachary

The city of Atlanta has passed sweeping open government legislation that should be a model across Georgia.

Let’s be clear.

Atlanta did not have a great track record when it comes to open government under its previous administration.

The ordinance passed Monday seems to be a good faith effort to right the ship by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the current administration.

Essentially, the city will now have an open government ombudsman, a transparency officer, tasked with policing open records compliance.

All city employees who handle public documents will be required to complete open records training.

And a new website will give the public a way to track open records requests in real time.

Along with Mayor Bottoms, give credit to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV for fighting the good fight, holding Atlanta officials accountable, exposing corruption in city government and negotiating with city leaders for these sweeping changes.

Their reporting led to a criminal investigation of former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration around the stalling of records requests and even the falsification of public documents.

The media has an important role to play in holding local government accountable.

The AJC and WSB were vigilant in their investigations, the reporting and the follow through.

As a result, a complaint was filed with the Office of the Attorney General and, in turn, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr called for an unprecedented criminal investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The GBI’s investigative files have now been turned over to the AG’s office.

Violators of Georgia’s open government laws should be prosecuted.

In 1998 the General Assembly gave the Attorney General specific authority to enforce the state’s Sunshine Laws.

Members of city councils, boards of education, county commissions, authorities and local government committees across the state of Georgia should be paying close attention to the egregious actions of previous city officials in Atlanta, the criminal investigation and possible charges, and learn from the steps the current administration is taking to improve public access.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, in partnership with the AG’s office publishes Georgia Sunshine Laws: A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government online and the publication is also available in printed form by contacting members of the foundation’s board of directors.

GFAF provides open government training and speakers with expertise on Georgia open government laws, government transparency and First Amendment issues across the state. Local governments, media organizations or your civic group can request training at: Speaker/Training Request.

Jim Zachary

Jim Zachary, a foundation board member, is deputy national editor of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.

The views and opinions expressed are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the firm with which the author is associated.

 

GFAF in the courts: Two wins and a wait

Courts are a battleground in the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s fight to protect and expand government transparency
By Peter Canfield

Georgia’s open government laws draw strength from insightful interpretation by the courts.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation plays a vital role in promoting that kind of interpretation by filing what are known as friend-of-the-court, or amicus, legal briefs designed to educate judges about the implications of their decisions.

Two recent victories in cases in which the foundation weighed in are worthy of attention, as is another case that’s still pending.

In June, the Georgia Supreme Court corrected a lower court ruling that had instructed public records custodians in the state not to release records unless Georgia’s Open Records Act required it. At issue were faculty research records that public universities aren’t required to release. Kennesaw State University, nevertheless, decided that it wanted to release the records. The state Supreme Court, overruling the Court of Appeals, held that the university had that prerogative.

In arguing for that result, the foundation was joined by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Georgia Press Association and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The foundation’s brief explained that the Court of Appeals’ decision made Georgia a national outlier, leaving citizens here with far less access to public information than they’ve had in the past or would enjoy in most other states and at the federal level.

Peter Canfield

The state Supreme Court corrected another Court of Appeals ruling last fall when it reiterated that private hospitals created by public hospital authorities are subject to open government requirements. The foundation, joined by other public interest and media groups, successfully argued that private entities performing functions for governmental agencies must do so transparently. Had the decision gone the other way, port authorities, local waste authorities, airports and a host of other entities acting on behalf of the government could have been privatized and their activities shielded from public scrutiny and review.

Still pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is a libel case against global news outlet CNN. At issue is whether Georgia citizens and companies should enjoy the state’s legislative protections for free speech if they are sued in federal courts located in the state. The lower court said no, a result that the foundation opposes. We believe that decision strips Georgians of much-needed protections. The case, which has been reported in the media industry press, is expected to be argued this fall.

Thank you for your support of the foundation and our mission. We want to hear from you. If you are aware of court cases that should be of interest to the foundation, let us know at info@gfaf.org. We need more eyes and ears watching what’s happening in our courtrooms. They are battlegrounds in the fight to protect and expand Georgians’ access to public records, meetings and proceedings.

Peter Canfield, a foundation board member, is a partner at Jones Day in Atlanta. The views and opinions expressed are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the firm with which the author is associated.

 

Ga. Supreme Court rules against restrictive interpretation of Sunshine Laws

Agencies can release information that qualifies for Open Records exemptions

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled this week that public information that otherwise might qualify for an Open Records Act exemption may be released if a government agency wants to disclose it.

“The justices’ unanimous decision makes clear the Georgia Supreme Court continues to be strongly committed to the value of open records,” said Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard T. Griffiths. “The open records law places no restrictions on public entities that want to be open and transparent, providing the best information to the public.”

In February, the foundation joined a friend-of-the-court brief in the caseBoard of Regents of the University System of Georgia and Campaign for Accountability v. Consumer Credit Research Foundation. The brief asked the state’s high court to overturn an appellate decision that had the potential to hobble Georgia’s Open Records Act.

The case began with a lawsuit filed by the Consumer Credit Research Foundation. CCRF, which is funded by the payday lending industry to support academic research on consumer finance, sought to block an open records request filed by the Campaign for Accountability. The Campaign for Accountability was asking for correspondence between CCRF and a Kennesaw State University professor who had received CCRF research funding.

Kennesaw State said it was willing to release the correspondence. CCRF then sued to block the release. A Fulton Superior Court judge ruled for Kennesaw State, concluding that although academic research exemptions gave KSU the authority to withhold the information, the university also had the right to release it. The Court of Appeals of Georgia reversed that decision, relying heavily on a 1995 case involving tax information that determined the state Open Records Act “mandates the nondisclosure of certain excepted information.”

The Supreme Court ruling on Monday overturned the appellate decision. “This is great news for the public’s right to know,” Griffiths said.

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Related media coverage

AJC:  Payday lending group loses lawsuit over record release

Daily Report: State high court rules KSU academic study correspondence is public record

E-filing bill will delay public access to court records

Proposal tacked onto governor’s bill could be rushed to a vote on Tuesday.

An electronic-filing proposal that would jeopardize public access to court records in Georgia has found new life. The proposal died in a legislative conference committee last year, but it now has been added to the governor’s criminal justice reform bill and could be voted on by lawmakers as soon as Tuesday.

As it stands, the e-filing proposal — which was introduced as House Bill 15 and now is embedded into Senate Bill 407 — would substantially delay public access to electronically filed court records. That’s because it requires access upon “physical acceptance” by clerks, rather than immediately upon filing, which is current law.

“In the most technologically advanced courts, this change to the acceptance standard would regularly delay public access for days. In less efficient courts, the delay would be much longer. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation believes such delays violate the federal Constitution, and a recent decision in a federal court in Chicago supports our opinion,” said Richard T. Griffiths, president of the foundation’s board of directors.

The problems with the bill would be relatively simple to fix. The foundation has suggested changes that would better align with the rights Georgians currently have to view court records as soon as they are filed.

“The e-filing provision must be carefully considered and improved to ensure timely access to court records,” Griffiths said. “This is a pretty easy fix. We urge lawmakers to make sure the public’s right to know does not fall victim to the General Assembly’s end-of-session rush.”

Please email media inquiries to info@gfaf.org.

Legislative Watch update: Transparency threats still alive under the Gold Dome

Two bills rated “negative” by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation continue to make their way through the Georgia General Assembly.

Senate Bill 331 would allow lottery winners to remain confidential upon request. The foundation opposes this proposed legislation, which would shield information on individuals receiving significant sums of state money. It would set a dangerous precedent, despite a recent amendment to limit anonymity to winners of over $250,000. We see no way to improve this flawed bill.

Senate Bill 407 would broaden the ability of trial courts to retroactively seal court records of criminal defendants sentenced under the First Offender Act. It’s part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s multi-year legislative package to reform the Georgia criminal justice system. While many of those reforms have been positive, this proposed legislation takes a wrong step toward less transparency. The bill could be improved by aligning it with other criminal reform legislation that gives trial courts discretion to consider the public interest of criminal court records when deciding whether to seal them.

Get more details on these legislative proposals and several others we’re tracking in our updated Legislative Watch.