Advocates for free speech and government transparency honored a late state Supreme Court chief justice while continuing to sound the alarm over what a proposed journalism ethics bill represents.
Chief Justice Harris Hines, who served on the state’s highest court for more than two decades, was honored posthumously for decisions in his career that protected Georgians’ First Amendment rights – actions that go as far back as the 1990s.
Hines, who died in a car wreck last year shortly after his retirement, once sided with a Sumter County newspaper when a sheriff refused to provide records that were requested verbally. And he also ruled that private non-profit hospitals run by governmental authorities must also comply with the state’s sunshine laws.
Most recently, the former Cobb County judge joined his colleagues on the bench last year in saying that the Tift County school board was out of bounds when it punished a teacher for opinions expressed on a private Facebook account.
Hines’ wife and family were presented with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Weltner Award at a banquet Thursday night held at Emory University, Hines’ alma mater.
Chief Justice Harold Melton said Hines’ accomplishments related to the First Amendment represent just a small part of his sense of fairness.
“The fairness that he exhibited was not borne out of intellectual prowess – although he was plenty smart – but it was a basic sense of fairness and fair play,” Melton told the crowd. “His fairness was very much in the span of the First Amendment, but you should know he was a lot broader than that.”
But while members of the nonpartisan advocacy group celebrated and honored one former state leader, they also urged supporters of the First Amendment to stay vigilant after a small group of lawmakers dropped a bill that would create oversight over journalists.
Rep. Andy Welch, a McDonough Republican and an attorney, introduced a bill that would create a “journalism ethics board” within the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication that would investigate alleged ethical violations.
That board would also offer “voluntary” accreditation and dish out sanctions for violations – such as taking away that accreditation.
“I would suggest there are reasons to worry when politicians get involved in defining who is a credible journalist,” said Hyde Post, a foundation co-founder and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor.
“But there’s also a challenge when literally anyone can hold themselves out as a journalist and when everyone with access to the internet is a publisher,” Post said.
The bill is still pending for next year, but it is unlikely to go anywhere. For one, Gov. Brian Kemp has shrugged it off. And Welch claims he was mostly just trying to start a conversation among members of press.
Regardless, the bill remains troubling in part because it was proposed by six respected lawmakers who hold important roles back home, said Richard T. Griffiths, who is the foundation’s president and a former CNN executive. Four of them hold leadership roles as chairmen of House committees.
“Ten or 15 years ago, no one of their stature would have dared propose such a bill. They would have been laughed at and ridiculed when they went home to explain what they had done that session,” Griffiths said.
“Now, in the siloed, algorithm-driven world, their views of frustration with journalism are mirrored by one-third of Americans – about half of Republicans – who agree with the President of the United States that ‘the media are the enemy of the American people,’ not their friend,” he added.