There are few things more important in government than transparency and accountability. Our republic was founded on these ideals, and throughout our great nation’s existence, they have been upheld and enshrined.
Yet, there is a case working its way to the Georgia Supreme Court that, in our view, could undermine those accountability measures in our state.
On Thursday, several media organizations, including one of which The News is a member, filed a friend-of-the-court brief calling on the state Supreme Court to overturn a lower court’s ruling that would make it mandatory for state and local government to withhold some public records.
The Georgia Press Association, Georgia First Amendment Foundation and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution all signed the brief.
Essentially, the Georgia Court of Appeals in May 2017 ruled local and state governments are required by law to withhold documents from public release if the documents are exempt from the Georgia Open Records Act.
The act provides for 50 exemptions, and many of them are prudent and necessary.
Although the state may need a Superior Court judge’s home address for human resources purposes, it’s understandable why that record should be exempt from public disclosure.
Similarly, the state Department of Natural Resources may have records of historical and archeological sites that are in danger of theft or substantial risk of harm or destruction if their locations are publicly revealed.
Security and vulnerability assessments of public utilities, infrastructure and buildings are also exempt from the the Open Records Act.
We are fine with nearly all of the act’s exemptions. In fact, we agree with most of them.
Yet, there is one important caveat to these exemptions. If the state or local governments choose to release the documents, they can do so. If the Georgia Supreme Court upholds the Court of Appeals’ ruling, agencies lose that discretion and would be required to withhold anything exempted from disclosure under the law.
Reading the law as the Court of Appeals has would mean the University of Georgia could not wish its president a happy birthday, because his birthday is exempt from disclosure. It would mean College of Coastal Georgia could not thank its donors or express gratitude to its benefactors, which are also exempt from disclosure.
In effect, the ruling — if allowed to stand — would take discretion from local and state governments about which exempted materials can, or should, be released.
Consider this: In June 2017, Troup County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Hockett was dispatched to a home outside LaGrange to check on a man after his family had called 911 and said they were concerned about him.
When Hockett arrived, the man, according to his father, had a psychotic episode and began firing a rifle at the deputy. One of the man’s bullets struck the deputy, who survived and made it back to his patrol car and radioed for backup.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation. In an era when police shootings are under increased public scrutiny, the GBI took the step of releasing the dashcam video from Hockett’s squad car. The video clearly showed the man shot first, and that Hockett was justified in returning fire. Without that video, the public may have jumped to conclusions that Hockett was somehow trigger happy or zealous in his use of force. The video showed that was not the case.
Under the Court of Appeals’ ruling, the GBI would have been barred from releasing that video. Of course, the GBI is already exempt from releasing it if the bureau chooses not to (pending investigation records are exempt from disclosure). Yet, the bureau chose to release it in the public’s interest. The appeals court’s ruling denies the bureau even the option of releasing the video.
We hope the Georgia Supreme Court will overturn the Court of Appeals’ ruling, as it goes against the General Assembly’s intention with the Open Records Act and reduces government transparency.