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Georgia law does not mandate that all public records that could be exempt from disclosure be kept private, Reporters Committee argues

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  1. Freedom of Information
On Monday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and three media organizations submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the…

On Monday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and three media organizations submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Georgia Supreme Court urging it to reverse a decision by the Court of Appeals that would make it mandatory for state agencies to withhold any record that falls under an exemption to the Georgia Open Records Act from the public. The Georgia Press Association, Georgia First Amendment Foundation, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution also signed on to the brief.

The brief in the case of Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia and Campaign for Accountability v. Consumer Credit Research Foundation argues that while some of the Act’s 50 exemptions prohibit state agencies from disclosing records, other exemptions allow for the state to waive them and release records at their discretion.

“Exemptions to public records laws should not be used to broadly shield entire categories of information from public view,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The express purpose of these laws is to allow the press and public to access information about government activities. State agencies often release records, in part or in full, that they have an option to withhold under an exemption in an effort to be transparent with those they serve. Mandating that records be kept private strips agencies of this decision-making power and hinders the public’s ability to hold government accountable.”

The coalition brief highlights differences in how exemptions to the law are written to show that the Georgia General Assembly intended for records to be barred from disclosure in some cases, but for agencies to decide whether to release an exempt record to the public in others.

The brief also argues that barring the release of any exempt record would keep both trivial and vital information from reaching the public, a consequence the General Assembly couldn’t have intended.

According to the brief, “[I]t would mean that law enforcement could not release body camera footage from a pending investigation, even if such footage were highly relevant to an important public debate, or to an effort to apprehend a suspect. The University of Georgia could not congratulate its president on his birthday. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (“MARTA”) could not release transit route options discussed in the context of promoting ridesharing programs. Georgia State University could not announce gifts or donations in a way that would reveal any personal information about the donors. And a state agency facing criticism for running an excessively costly self-insurance program could not release records demonstrating that the cost of the program was reasonable. The General Assembly clearly did not intend to impose such an illogical and draconian regime.”

The full coalition brief is available here.