Friday, April 15, 2016

Georgia Football and the First Amendment

The Georgia State Legislature is a house of magicians.  They are skilled in producing illusions by slight of hand.  During the 2016 session, while we taxpayers were being distracted by the Religious Liberty Law and the god-awful Campus Carry Law, they slipped a big one in on us.  Before we even knew this bill existed, it was already signed, sealed and Deal-ivered!  Historically, the Legislature has passed such special interest bills at the sounding of the bell to prevent controversy.  Legislature hocus-pocus.

I’m speaking of the bill now known as “Kirby’s Law”, because it was passed at the behest of Kirby Smart.  For those of you who may be like me and don’t live and breathe college sports, Kirby Smart is the new football coach at the University of Georgia.  I think they are called the “Bulldogs.”  When Coach Smart visited the General Assembly, he was asked if he needed anything.  Out of all things he could have requested, he whined that answering Freedom of Information requests was time consuming for his office staff.  Ask and ye shall receive. 

Kirby’s Law extends the time for athletic departments of Public Colleges and Universities from the mandatory 3 days to an unprecedented 90 days to answer requests for records.  This bill was introduced and passed after midnight on the very last day of the session, at the very last minute.  And the magic show gets even better!  This bill was tacked on to another bill that allows state agencies to reject records requests regarding any economic development projects until the deal is complete.  I hope the Governor and his economic development team don’t strike a deal to bring a nuclear dump to middle Georgia.

This new law may seem harmless on the surface.  However, look for another bill next year that will allow other State agencies to hide their secrets for 90 days.  Consider the Department of Family and Children’s Services.  They have so many records requests they have an attorney on contract.  I’m sure they could use a time break, too.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Georgia’s Open Records Act (ORA) was instituted to insure that government agencies did not abuse their discretionary powers.  The Federal Act and State Act mirror each other.  Both Acts require records to be turned over 3 days after the request is made.  Now, the only agency that has 90 days to comply is Georgia college athletic teams.  These Acts were passed in accordance with the Constitution’s First Amendment.  The First Amendment!  The same amendment that Republicans claimed they were protecting when they created the Religious Liberty Bill.  However, the right of citizens to know what their government is doing and freedom of the press is also in the First Amendment. 

Don’t you see the hypocrisy here with the Republicans?  They use the First Amendment to justify passing a bill to discriminate against a population of citizens, while simultaneously ignoring the First Amendment to deny citizens our right to information pertaining to agencies that are tax funded. 

We, as tax paying citizens, depend on news agencies, newspapers, and reporters to inform us of abuse taking place in our government agencies.  These same people depend on records requests to bring you the facts.  They were completely duped by this slight of hand magic by the legislature.  They were caught sleeping. They will have a hard time doing their job of informing the public if anything arises.  For instance, if a reporter learns that the NCAA has sent a complaint letter to the Athletic Director, the reporter would have to hold his story for 90 days.  I project that the first time this happens, this law will be litigated, an expensive undertaking for both parties.  FOIA and ORA were born out of litigation.  Must we litigate the same things repeatedly?

When Governor Deal signed Kirby’s bill, the Governor said, “It simply levels the playing field with other states that also have strong athletic programs like Georgia.”  Really?  That’s a reason to violate our First Amendment Rights?  Exceptions to FOIA and ORA should be reserved for security reasons, not sports teams. 

Instead of going down this path, I wish the Legislators would have told Coach Smart they would make one phone call and get additional funding for his poor, over-worked office staff.  However, understanding that football is the most important thing in Georgia, I hope the Governor is right and UGA or GA Tech will win the NCAA Championship this year since the obstacle of answering records requests timely has been eliminated.

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