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Editorial: You Need to Know
Tuesday, 25 February 2014

IF YOU DON’T know about something then you can’t care about it. Even more dangerous is that if you don’t start caring about something then pretty soon you won’t know nothin’.

It appears some in the General Assembly, not to mention a lot of others doubtless supportive of this notion among the less well-thought-of at all levels of government, would like to steadily start shoving citizens/taxpayers/voters into know-nothing land. That is all of the rest of us.

There are so many measures advancing through the Georgia legislature that would limit — take away, actually — public access to various pieces of information involving how tax dollars are being spent as to amount to open warfare against what is called “the people’s right to know.”

The governing party (currently known as Republicans, though Democrats through the ages have sometimes been no less fond of “nosy” citizens and their journalist watchdogs) best start screwing its head on straight. One can’t be for some basic rights, like having guns, and against others, like having knowledge. They are a package.

More important still, the right of access to public-paid information and activity is what keeps all those other rights safer. Laws guaranteeing access to public records by you, me — anybody, actually, if paid for with our tax money or just being done in our name — are known as “sunshine laws.” Why? Because sunshine is the best disinfectant for moldy, sick, nasty things that like to grow in the dark.

JUST A FEW of the current proposed state measures, some getting quite near passage, would:

1. Stop all access to booking mug shots until somebody is convicted;

2. Deny the public the right to hear recordings of 911 calls;

3. Seal yet more records involving child welfare (or is that unwelfare, given all the recent state scandals?);

4. Block the release of local government and school system retirement records (so nobody can learn what size pension the fired principal in the test-cheating scandal is getting);

5. Block doctors and lawyers from hiring aides to look though police reports to find addresses of potential patients or clients. Hmm, why not a law to keep politicians from having campaign workers look through registered voter rolls to get addresses to which to mail their junk brochures?

6. Hide from view payroll and personnel records of private contractors paid to perform public services.

There’s more ... a lot more along the same lines ... in what amounts to a stealthy effort to start turning out the lights any citizens might hope to shine upon public matters. That last about private contractors is really interesting, given the current push by state government to “contract out” all sorts of stuff to the private or nonprofit sectors that has in the past proven to be particularly prone to scandals and worse when the public can still get a peek at what’s going on: foster care, mental health, prisons and so forth.

MUCH OF THIS is advancing behind a protective shield of one particular measure, House Bill 845, that frankly has a strong fair-play argument in its favor ... if one doesn’t know how the world works, like the too-many legislators who very clearly do not.

HB 845 would ban the release of booking mug shots until the person is convicted. The outrage some voice stems from those ultimately found not guilty (and even those never actually charged) having their photos plastered all over the Internet (yes, this newspaper runs the daily jail booking report on its website as well) but more particularly the “Busted” style print and electronic sites that make money off this ... and even charge those wishing to have their picture removed.

Last year the legislature passed a law supposedly forcing such operations to remove photos of persons never convicted and now has found — they really, really don’t know how the world or Internet works — that the sites just moved to overseas servers or similar, where Georgia and U.S. laws do not apply. By the way, even if a photo is erased it will still exist for those who know how to look in archives and “Wayback Machines.”

The “until conviction” mug-shot notion is pure folly. For example, one might never know what the murder suspect just released on bail looks like even though he lives down the block. A possible witness might remain in the dark and never come forward.

And, for those who remember the journalism old days when “mug shots” were rather rare to get hold of, the media even then had other ways to keep the public informed, though less well: High school yearbook pictures for example. Actually, today it would be easy to find out what “you” look like ... nearly everybody is on Facebook or similar.

SOME MAY recall that in 2012 the legislature revised and somewhat strengthened Georgia’s Sunshine laws, piling on fines for governments that violate open-records or open-meeting laws, encouraging more meetings in open sessions and lowering the prices governments may charge for information. Some legislators did not like such then; is this payback time?

Yet openness remains the correct direction and each and every proposal seeking to restrict or block access to public records now available (and some are not, including a number that ought to be, and are in other states) should be voted down — nay, slapped down.

When President Lyndon Johnson, back on July 4, 1966, a date picked on purpose, signed the Freedom of Information Act he said: “This legislation springs from one of our most essential principles. A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits. No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.”

It is worth pointing out that all the state-level “exceptions” now being proposed seek to avoid injury or simply discomfort to specific personal or private interests. Hard as some may find it to understand, this is simply the risk that must be run in order to protect the whole from greater potential injury.

There is a rather easy rule of thumb regarding what is public in nature. The few existing exceptions tend to involve matters that might cost the taxpayers even more money (like interest in real estate or a pending lawsuit) if too much knowledge preceded an action being taken.

THAT RULE is this: If you and I paid for it with taxes, fees and so forth then it belongs to us. Not just the paperwork or photos but also anything coming from our employees in public service or those our elected officials have contracted with.

Our money. Our business. Our records.

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