Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican, goes over changes made to a bill that alarmed First Amendment advocates when it passed the Senate early this month. The new version has been narrowed down significantly. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder
A Senate measure that would have limited the public’s access to personal information of politicians and government employees – like their home address – has been narrowed down to only apply to law enforcement officers.
The original bill had alarmed First Amendment advocates who argued lawmakers were creating a broad public records exemption that would limit the public’s ability to hold government officials accountable.
Sen. Matt Brass, a Newnan Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said his goal was to protect public employees in the digital age by blacking out their personal data in government databases, such as the qPublic site many counties use to post property ownership information.
It’s a concern that is playing out in legislatures across the country with these so-called redaction measures being introduced in at least a dozen states this year.
“People are putting information out there that really just doesn’t need to be out there,” said Brass, a lawmaker who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee. “And with the access to the World Wide Web, it’s a growing problem. And we’re simply trying to stop it.”
Brass’ bill breezed through the Senate early this month, but Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican, worked with Brass to draft a new version that has assuaged the concerns raised by First Amendment advocates.
Under Gaines’ proposal, the bill would only apply to law enforcement officers, who must request in writing that their home address or phone number be removed from public records available online.
Local governments would have until January to provide a form for law enforcement officers to use when filing the removal request, but requests can be submitted in writing in the meantime. The bill would take effect July 1.
If a county refuses to remove the information, a judge can order them to act.
The revised version of the bill easily cleared a House committee Tuesday and now goes to House Rules, which decides which bills go to the full chamber for a vote. Because it was changed, the bill would go back to the Senate for another vote. The session ends March 29.
Sarah Brewerton-Palmer, a board member with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, called the new version a “targeted solution to a public safety problem without threatening the public’s general access to records in Georgia.”
Brewerton-Palmer said she expects the issue to continue to bubble up nationally as lawmakers try to adapt to emerging cyber threats.
But she also said she hopes decision-makers will turn to laser-focused measures like the new SB 215 to address those concerns instead of the “blunt weapons” that are popping up across the country that could hamstring investigative journalism and threaten government accountability.
“The important thing – and the thing you need to think hard about when you make these changes – is that you have to get the balance between safety and government transparency right. Because government transparency is a very fundamental value that we have to protect,” she said.
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