ZACHARY: First Amendment specifically protects press

DomeLight by Jim Zachary 

Every elected and appointed official in the state of Georgia should know the name Jenna Garland. 

Anyone who holds public office, works in government offices, and most especially every public records custodian, should pay very close attention. 

Garland is the first person to be prosecuted and found guilty of violating the Georgia Open Records Act, following the first-ever criminal investigation for Sunshine Law violations by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. 

Violating open government laws in Georgia is no laughing matter. 

It is criminal. 

Garland, the press secretary during former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration, told another city employee in March 2017 to intentionally delay handing over public records that had been requested by the media.

In a nutshell, when WSB-TV in Atlanta had made a public records request that could have produced documents embarrassing to the mayor and the city, Garland sent a message to another official telling her “drag this out as long as possible” and “provide information in the most confusing format available.”

Garland has now been ordered to pay total fines of $1,500 for two misdemeanor violations and she received no probation or jail time. In many respects, though convicted, you might say she got off light, because criminal violations of the open government laws in Georgia are misdemeanors punishable by up to $1,000 for just the first violation. A penalty of up to $2,500 may be imposed for each additional violation within a 12-month period. Similar fines can be imposed for violations of the Open Meetings Act. 

This verdict sends a strong message to government officials across the state of Georgia that they can be held criminally liable for blocking the public’s right to know. 

A person can violate the law not only by withholding records or meeting secretly but by frustrating or attempting to frustrate the public’s access to records and meetings.

This conviction is a watershed moment as it relates to the enforcement of the Sunshine Law in Georgia.

Obstructing the public’s right to know is not only wrong, it is criminal. 

This case did not even involve an out-and-out records denial. It was all about stalling, or delaying, an open records request.

This criminal conviction should be a wake-up call to every member of city council, county commission, city and county office staff, board of education, school system central office staff, every appointed authority, commission and committee of local government and every records custodian in every jurisdiction in the state of Georgia.

“Openness and transparency in government are vital to upholding the public trust,” state Attorney General Chris Carr said in a statement back when the findings by the GBI were released following the investigation into the criminal behavior. “I am confident that this action sends a clear message that the Georgia Open Records Act will be enforced.”

All elected and appointed officials, along with all records custodians must pay very close attention and to show the utmost respect for and compliance with the Georgia Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act. 

Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard Griffiths said it best, “Normally, no one wins in a criminal case, but this is a win. It is a reaffirmation that the public’s records belong to the public.”

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is the editor of The Valdosta Daily Times and president-elect of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. 

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