transparencyprojectofgeorgia

Media cannot be denied access: Law enforcement must comply with First Amendment

In Uncategorized on May 26, 2015 at 8:33 pm

The media’s “rights” of access are exactly the same as all private citizens. Our rights are not more, and most certainly should never — under any circumstances — be any less. The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and the Lowndes County Board of Education ran afoul of the First Amendment in retarding the freedom of the press Saturday by enforcing restrictions that were more restrictive than what the general public was allowed to do. Law enforcement, or any other government entity, may choose to grant special privileges to the press, but they cannot choose to place special restrictions on the press. If journalists attempting to cover the Lowndes High graduation this past weekend had chosen to be arrested, it would have been a clear First Amendment violation and actionable in court. The city of Atlanta has been under a court order for more than two years because of restricting a citizen journalist from taping an incident that took place in public view. The city has subsequently been hit with a contempt of court order for additional violations. Since the 2012 court order there, police have arrested journalists covering protests and have seized cameras — all in violation of the First Amendment and in contempt of the court order. A federal court could impose $10,000 per day fines if the city does not provide evidence that its police force has radically changed its policies and procedures. The Atlanta police department has been ordered to retrain all its officers. The Lowndes high school graduation ceremony was a public event, in a public place that the public freely attended. Ironically, members of the press were given free rein to cover a protest that occurred outside of the stadium, but were told they could not cover the graduation, like they always have in the past. The press can do anything the public can do and the public can do anything the press has the “right” to do. If there are restrictions because of safety concerns, or traffic congestion, then those restrictions must be unilaterally applied. The press cannot be put in a penalty box because someone doesn’t like something they have said or done. Another irony in all of this is law enforcement worked hard to protect the First Amendment rights of the protesters, while attempting to abridge the First Amendment Rights of the Press. On a day that celebrated the education of our young people, it is local law enforcement and the board of education that needs a civics lesson. Valdosta Daily Times reporter Adam Floyd and WCTV reporter Winnie Wright did the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and the Lowndes school system a favor by choosing not to be arrested. Both reporters were told they could not enter the campus to cover graduation, and believed if they forced the issue they would have been arrested. Floyd knew that a colleague was already covering the ceremony and had entered the stadium like every other person who was there, so he made his case, pressed his point, but stopped short of being arrested. If Floyd and Wright had been arrested or their equipment confiscated, local officials could have found themselves in a mess similar to what is going on in Atlanta. Calling this whole thing a misunderstanding or miscommunication is not good enough. For the school’s attorney to say law enforcement misunderstood his orders is not good enough. The courts have said police must be fully trained and if they are not, they must be retrained. Both reporters are very well known, were called by their first names and clearly were there to provide positive, vibrant coverage of one of the most important days in the lives of these graduates. They were not allowed to do so. County officials must do better. It’s the law.

— Jim Zachary, The Valdosta Daily Times 

SUNSHINE WEEK: Public notices must stay in the sun

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2015 at 2:55 pm

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By Jim Zachary
Editor, Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times
Director, Transparency Project of Georgia

As we recognize Sunshine Week, the public’s right to know is under assault throughout the United States.

State lawmakers are whittling away at Sunshine Laws in multiple ways, not the least of which is the effort to remove requirements to publish public notices in the place where communities are most likely to find important information they want and need to know — in the local newspaper.

Efforts to allow local governments the option of placing required public notices on government websites, or on third party sites that bury the information is poor, ill-advised legislation that should be viewed as a threat to and further erosion of government transparency.

The reason public notices are required for publication in newspapers is to make them available to as wide an audience as possible.

Keeping public notices public is critical.

Public notices alert the general public about bankruptcy proceedings, adoptions, foreclosures, public hearings, tax liens, local legislative proposals, zoning changes and proposed tax increases — all things the public wants and needs to know.
Burying that information on a government website would be an assault on taxpayers, and all residents.

Public notices should not be hidden in a dark corner.

They should be kept out in the sunshine where they can be easily seen.

Government cannot be its own watchdog.

Newspapers have a long, important legacy of helping the public keep an eye on local government through news reporting and the publication of government notices.

Newspapers also serve as a historical record that will be looked upon by researchers now and years in the future. Much of that record is documented by public notices.

Simply placing required public notices on government owned or controlled websites would mean a person would have to know exactly what they’re searching for — or what keywords to use — in order to find the specific information they want to access.

The government website model effectively hides the actions of government.

Making public notices available online is important and almost all newspapers also place the notices on local websites and statewide sites through press associations that aggregate the data.

Lawmakers should stop assaulting the principles of government transparency and work, instead, to protect the public’s right to know.

For the media, this column and additional open government columns and cartoons are available this week at: 

http://www.sunshineweek.org


Jim Zachary is the editor of the Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times and Director of the Transparency Project of Georgia (www.transparencyprojectofgeorgia.com)

Bring Open Government Symposium to your area

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Georgia Open Government Symposiums have been held in Macon, Valdosta, Athens, Douglasville and Savannah.

Journalists, community watchdog groups, government officials and staff have attended the free events that focus on the provisions of the Georgia Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act, while framing the discussion with the principles and importance of government transparency.

Presented by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and the Transparency Project of Georgia, the symposiums are intended to “incubate a culture of openness in local governments across the state of Georgia,” according the Transparency Project director Jim Zachary.

To schedule an event in your community contact Zachary at zacharyjim@gmail.com

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