Georgia’s 2018 right-to-know milestones

Reflecting on a year of transparency challenges and opportunities.

As 2018 comes to a close, Georgians can look ahead to a more transparent future.

The biggest news: What started as an ugly records fight between news organizations and the City of Atlanta led to the Georgia attorney general’s first investigation into a public records violation and may create a model for open government. What’s more, a related settlement will fund open government training throughout Georgia.

Here is a look back at events that helped or hurt public access and government transparency statewide in 2018, and how the Georgia First Amendment Foundation fought for citizens’ right to know.

Extraordinary donations announced at Weltner Banquet will boost transparency training

At our 2018 Weltner Award Banquet, we honored Cobb County Senior Judge Jim Bodiford for his career-long efforts to keep courts open and transparent. During the October banquet, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News also announced an $80,000 donation funded by the news organizations’ settlement with the City of Atlanta that will be used to provide open government training to public officials, members of the public and journalists across Georgia.

In addition, the Department of Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication announced a 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.

Support from these donors and sponsors of our annual fundraising event added up to more than $136,000 — an extraordinary amount underscoring that our open government mission is more important than ever.

Legislative Breakfast foreshadows a tough session for transparency

At our Legislative Breakfast, lawmakers, reporters and government watchdogs gathered at Georgia State School of Law to discuss potential threats to transparency in Georgia. It turned out that the 2018 General Assembly session was not a good one for the public’s right to know.A bill passed to let big lottery winners keep their names secret, although they receive millions of dollars from the state. A criminal justice reform bill passed that significantly expanded trial courts’ability to seal court records and conceal criminal histories. A bill passed that adds an unnecessary exemption to the Open Records Act; it enables the Georgia Department of Human Services to shield from the public information on people chosen by the department to serve as foster parents. The bills became law July 1.

State’s highest court rulings promote transparency

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

Justices also 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.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Court of Appeals confirmed that citizens who request public records should not be hassled about the reason for their requests.

Keep up with what the Georgia First Amendment Foundation has planned for 2019 by becoming a member today.

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

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.

Weltner Banquet art auction: No Obstruction to Free Speech

Large mobile represents relationships between U.S. presidents and free expression; auction proceeds will support the foundation’s mission.

The tangle of quotes in Richard T. Griffiths’ hanging mobile, No Obstruction to Free Speech, is designed to give context to the current relationship between the press and the President. The artwork shows how tensions of today are nothing new, says Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and a retired journalist who oversaw CNN’s global editorial quality control for more than 20 years.

Griffiths created the 6-by-4-foot mobile from wood, lasered urethane, stainless steel and galvanized wire. The artwork displays quotes from every U.S. president, as well as from Founding Fathers and select quotes from Supreme Court justices. Their words illustrate how America’s leaders have respected the ways independent journalism and free expression contribute to the stability of our democracy.

No Obstruction to Free Speech will be auctioned at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s 2018 Weltner Award Banquet, happening the evening of Oct. 17 at the Silverbell Pavilion of the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta. The annual banquet is the foundation’s most important fundraiser, and proceeds from the auction will directly support our mission to protect and expand free speech and public access to government records, meetings and court proceedings in Georgia. (Tickets are now on sale.)

Griffiths’ mobiles are on display at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism and private collections. No Obstruction to Free Speech was in part inspired by the tangle of coat hangers in Man Ray’s Dadaist work Obstruction that hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.