I hate bullies. And the kind of bullies I hate the most are duly elected officials who act like bullies. Case in point – Sam Olens, the Georgia Attorney General.
According to his Web site: “As Attorney General, Olens is committed to serving Georgians by defending the U.S. and Georgia Constitutions and upholding the rule of law.” Sounds good, but apparently Sam is not terribly interested in the First Amendment. At least judging from the position he’s taking in a case involving a student journalist.
David Schick, the student journalist in question, made a public records request to the Georgia Board of Regents under the Georgia Open Records Act. Schick’s primary interest had to do with a budgetary shortfall at Georgia Perimeter College and a layoff of 282 employees.
In its response, the Board of Regents inadvertently included 4 pages of e-mails that identified several individuals who’d applied for the position of president at another Georgia state university. Under the Georgia Open Records Act, records disclosing the identity of a candidate for the position of president of any Board of Regents college or university is exempt from production under the Act.
Once Schick received the records – 713 pages in all – he posted them all on his blog. Olens and his henchmen filed a motion on May 15 asking the court to order Schick to remove the 4 records from his blog.
There are several issues here. First, Ohio wisely has refrained from making these type of records exempt. The public has a right to observe the process of hiring public employees – especially high level decision makers. And the public can’t tell if the process is fair unless it knows who didn’t get hired. Did the public body hire the best candidate? Who knows unless we’re told who they passed over? Was the process discriminatory? Again, that requires a peek at who failed to make the cut. A big part of the problem here is the Georgia law itself. But that is a separate matter.
Another problem is Olens misunderstanding of what a public records exemption means. An exemption allows the government to withhold a record that is otherwise public. It doesn’t transform the record into a state secret. Which means that the Georgia Board of Regents could have withheld the record. But once they released it, inadvertently or not, they can’t prohibit anyone from sharing the information. The law is clear – information obtained legally is protected by the First Amendment. So assuming Schick didn’t hold a gun to anybody’s head here, Olens and his posse can’t use the power of the state to shut down Schick’s blog.
Olens appears to be one of those small government guys. He says on his Web site he “continues to defend Georgia from federal regulatory overreach.” Apparently, however, state judicial overreach is okay.