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The fight for sunshine

The Savannah Morning News If you thought the Georgia Legislature has too much on its hands to consider clamping down on the public’s right to know, think again. No less than seven bills that mean less open government are pending. We hope none make it into law. When public officials are doing the public’s business, the public has the right to know what those officials are doing on the public’s behalf. The same goes with public records. The refusal to release documents must be the exception, not the rule. This week is Sunshine Week in Georgia and across the nation. The American Society of Newspaper Editors is asking newspapers to call special attention on the need to shine the light on the workings of government. It strengthens our democracy by making citizens more informed. Sunshine in government doesn’t come automatically. It’s like exercise. If you don’t do it regularly, the body politic starts to sag, get flabby and fall apart. Some public officials – including some in this very town – will kick and scream when asked to comply with state sunshine laws. They stonewall. Or they try to impose outrageously high fees to make copies of public documents, hoping to deter news organizations. But more often than not, these officials do comply. They don’t want to be hauled into court and waste precious public dollars on a losing case. The word “media” is occasionally used as a bad word, as in “the media is invading people’s privacy” or “the media is focusing only on bad news” or is too liberal. Some criticism, unfortunately, is valid. At the same time, however, some individual members of the “media,” including this newspaper, are fighting to retain public access to public meetings, public documents and public spaces. That doesn’t mean every attempt to use Georgia’s sunshine laws is popular. For example, a writer for the raunchy Hustler magazine wants to use Georgia’s laws to obtain copies of grisly photographs taken by law enforcement officials from the scene of the 2008 death of 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson. This sick request understandably touched a nerve among some state lawmakers, who now want to exempt all crime photos from open records requests. Fortunately, the existing law seems to provide a proper filter. According to the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit organization that fights for the public’s right to know, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has the legal authority to tell Hustler to take a hike in this instance. We hope it does. We also hope lawmakers don’t overreact and pass a law that hurts real reporters doing legitimate journalism. Consider this statement: “Public officers are the trustees and servants of the people and are at all times amenable to them.” Those aren’t our words. Those words are found in the Georgia Constitution, and we wholeheartedly embrace them. We also embrace the interpretation of those words in 1992 by former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Weltner, whose majority opinion in a case filed against the City of Macon included this ringing declaration: ”Because public men and women are amenable ‘at all times’ to the people, they must conduct the public’s business out in the open,” he wrote. To put it another way, let the sun shine in – this week and every week.

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