Richard T. Griffiths of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation asked Georgia legislators this week to take a deep breath, tap the brakes, and reconsider the “vast sweep” of Senate Bill 215, which would require redaction of names and property ownership from state data bases of law enforcement personnel, politicians, and hundreds of thousands of other government officials.
Lawmakers didn’t slow down, and the legislation sponsored by Sen. Matt Brass, a Newnan Republican, swept through the Senate with a 53-0 vote Thursday with no debate. It is now headed to the House which could sign off on the bill in the coming weeks, an alarming development for transparency advocates.
“The Georgia Open Records Act already provides broad protection to public employees’ personal information and records that specifically identify public employees in their jobs to close their offices, but neither of these bills will prevent information already commercially online and available from other states from being disseminated in Georgia,” Griffiths said. “We know these bills are well-intentioned. We know that there are potential problems here, but we do not believe that these bills as written will solve these problems without potentially creating chaos.”
These so-called redaction laws where personal data is blacked out on government data bases have been introduced in 12 states this year, according to the Uniform Law Commission, a national organization. Lawmakers across the country see harassment of public officials as a building threat.
In a Senate Oversight Committee hearing Monday, Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican, scoffed at Griffiths’ suggestion that there could be “chaos” with public records, such as real estate transactions.
Sen. Jason Esteves, an Atlanta Democrat, outlined his companion bill, Senate Bill 176, which allows for redacting personally identifying information of a wide range of government employees in public documents. Violators could be subject to substantial civil court penalties, including punitive damages and attorney’s fees. Esteves’ bill also passed the committee unanimously with bipartisan committee support and is headed to a Monday Senate floor vote.
The committee hearing was all over in 33 minutes. Thursday’s unanimous Senate floor vote was done quickly without debate.
Redaction laws trend
The campaign against government records transparency is a growing trend in states across the country.
Amye Bensenhaver, the co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition and retired assistant attorney general for the Blue Grass state, did not hide her dismay at what she said is a lack of foresight by legislators, not just in Georgia, but in other states. Kentucky has attempted three times to pass a bill similar to SB 215, she said, and the bill has been pulled back each time.
“It sounds good in practice, to protect our public officials, but the reality is that genie is out of the bottle, that information (addresses, government phone numbers) is ubiquitous,” Bensenhaver said. “These bills are window dressing. This is not going to protect public officials. How do you protect people when that information is on the internet, everywhere?”
Added Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, “These bills attack one small piece of the problem since there are multiple sources for the same information. No one wants to look like they’re voting to expose judges to harm, though, so the bills fly through with only a handful of no votes.”
Bensenhaver said she is convinced that Kentucky lawmakers pulled back from the redaction laws in March 2022 when they were presented with an article by media outlet WDRB that explored the issue in depth.
It is not just open government advocates who are worried about these redaction bills. Real estate firms and title search companies, county clerks, local municipalities, and the media, while recognizing the increased threat against government officials, have spoken out against the bills and urge restraint.
Motivations to hide public officials’ identifying information can be laudable because, increasingly, government officials are being harassed, and worse, at home. The son of a judge was murdered in the doorway of his home in New Jersey by a man who found the judge’s address, presumably through an internet search. New Jersey lawmakers passed Daniel’s Law, named for the murdered man, 20-year-old Daniel Anderl. It is similar to Georgia’s SB 215.
But Griffiths, while expressing sympathy with government officials and their desire to protect family members, argued Georgia open records law already provides broad protections to government officials and their families. It does nothing to erase the addresses from private, profit-driven search engines.
Instead, under SB 215, Griffiths said “slumlords” would find it easier to hide rundown property, politicians running for office could shield their assets from scrutiny, and even live outside the district where they are running for office.
“The bills clearly turn upside down the idea that Georgians who serve the public should conduct their business out in the open,” Griffiths said.
Open government advocates across the board agree.
“First, there is a legitimate need for the public to be able to know what property our public employees own, to prevent corruption,” said David Cuillier, head of the Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida. “Countless stories document public employees evading property taxes, being bribed, living outside of the jurisdictions they serve, or even acting as slum lords in communities they serve. If those records are secret, then bad actors will rob from the taxpayers.
“Second, certainly, few people would object to making personal cell numbers secret, but government-issued phones? When they are doing the public’s business, then it is the public’s business.”
If Georgia lawmakers want compelling stories about redaction’s threat to open government posed by these bills, here are two:
In Arizona, journalists published the home address of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a story about his property dealings. The sheriff investigated the publication’s two media executives and jailed them. Cuillier says SB 176 and SB 215 could result in criminal charges against Georgia media. “These laws can and have been abused,” Cuiller said.
In New Jersey, the Borough of South Bound Brook removed all resolutions, agendas, and minutes from its website to comply with Daniel’s Law. Georgia’s Esteves amended SB 176 to protect government employees who inadvertently publish personal information of a public official. Daniel’s Law threatened so much calamity on New Jersey public records that lawmakers had to create the Office of Information Privacy to deal with the implementation of Daniel’s Law because it was so unwieldy.
Local records keepers, researchers out of loop
It will also place a burden on workers, such as county clerks, to find and redact public-facing information on 700,000 Georgia city, county, and state employees, current and past, as counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. County clerks could also be responsible for redactions in years-old paper records.
Of course, that means county clerks might want to know what is coming their way with requirements in SB 215 and SB 176. Amanda Hannah, president of the Georgia County Clerks Association, said this week she was not aware of the pending legislation.
In Kentucky, SB 63 did not come to a vote in the state in March 2022, because the blowback from public employees like county clerks was harsh, Bensenhaver said.
Private companies that do business using government data are also warning of risks.
“These bills do not allow for some of the key elements such as permissioned access to transfer real estate,” said Jeremy Yohe, American Land Title Association. “What happens if someone changes jobs or moves? If information is removed from the records—since technically they are publicly available—is that a permanent removal? The title insurance industry would want that information shielded but available in the future.
“There should be some best practices included in this legislation to prevent unintended consequences.”
The association said access to confidential information could be given to licensed attorneys, title professionals and assessors, as well as other entities that sign confidentiality agreements.
“We support the safety of these public officials — judges, police officers — whoever is included,” Yohe said. “The best way to shield this information is to limit who has the access to the data without removing or altering the public record.”
“These bills will do little to protect public employees – all it will do is give them a false sense of security, which could actually cause more harm,” said Cuillier of the Brechner Center. “Anybody can be found fairly quickly and easily online through other means than public records. If the problem is people harassing or threatening government employees at their homes, then deal with that issue head on: increase sanctions for harassment, provide greater protection.
“These bills will do nothing, other than embolden corrupt officials who will rob the taxpayers behind a veil of secrecy. It is well-intentioned legislation that will lead to public harm.”
Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.