With little debate, the House quickly approved House Bill 1332, supported by House Speaker David Ralston. It was in response to the request from Hustler magazine for copies of crime-scene photos from the 2008 murder of recent University of Georgia graduate Meredith Emerson, whose nude and dismembered body was found days after her kidnapping while hiking in North Georgia.
Ralston assigned Rep. Jill Chambers, R-Atlanta, to formally sponsor the legislation because she has been a champion in previous sessions for opening more government documents to the public.
Chambers told her colleagues that the Open Records Act was never intended to allow for the release of crime-scene photos to be used for sensationalism.
"Meredith Emerson wanted to make a difference in this world," Chambers said. "Passage of this bill will prohibit the exploitation of crime victims, future and current ones. ... Let's allow Meredith to rest in peace."
Credentialed journalists would be able to inspect the photos under supervision by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. And the legislation would not block the release of all photos from crime scenes like Emerson's, Chambers said, only those that actually show her genitals or mutilation.
Rep. Bob Smith, R-Watkinsville, said he was concerned that the legislation had no expiration date so that the photos could be released a some time well after the case was closed. He pointed to the continuing controversy about whether there was one shooter or two in President John Kennedy's assassination and how the release of photos from his case has helped the public study the matter for themselves.
"I know this is gruesome," he said.
Ralston responded by saying Smith raised a valid concern.
"The bill has been narrowly drawn in a way that would not limit the ability of the law-enforcement community, as was the case in the Kennedy matter, to do their work but would essentially restrict those, who for inappropriate reasons would seek to obtain and exploit this kind of material," Ralston said.
The bill passed 163-0 and was immediately transmitted to the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers said earlier in the day that the Senate would also act quickly to pass the bill.
"I suspect, as quickly as the House can get it to us, we'll pass it in the Senate, he said.
Asked about cutting off legitimate use of crime-scene photos for public oversight of the courts, Rogers acknowledged the need to be cautious about closing off aspects of government.
"We have to be very careful when we talk about this. This is truly a First Amendment issue," he said. "But I have great faith in the speaker who is spearheading this. I've spoken indirectly with some members (of the Senate) about this, and they want to be careful but move quickly."
This week is Sunshine Week in which open-government advocates bring focus on efforts to block public access to government meetings and documents. HB1332 comes for a vote this week because the decision to make last-minute wording changes prevented it from being ready for the House vote that Ralston had scheduled for last week.
From March 11: Judge bans release of crime scene photos requested by Hustler
ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia judge barred state authorities from releasing the crime scene and autopsy photos of a 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate who was slain while hiking.
DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Dan Coursey said Wednesday releasing the photos of Meredith Emerson to Hustler Magazine would cause "irreparable harm."
Authorities had already announced they would refuse the porn publication's request for photos of the 24-year-old, whose decapitated body was found in January 2008 in the north Georgia woods.
But her family filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to obtain a court order barring the photos' release. Hustler had requested the photos from the GBI.
From March 8: Ralston blasts Hustler request for crime scene pics Walter Jones, Morris News Service
ATLANTA -- A veteran author of true-crime books has requested crime-scene photos of the nude, decapitated body of University of Georgia graduate Meredith Emerson on behalf of Hustler magazine, and the GBI is refusing to comply while the House rushes through a law change to block the release of similar photos.
The author, however, said he's merely researching an assignment from the magazine as he would any other crime he's written about. And free-speech advocates say there's a danger of closing off access to government.
Hustler is considering a legal fight.
House Speaker David Ralston told reporters Monday the writer is exploiting a gray area in a law enacted after NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in 2001 that prohibits release of autopsy photos. The law was passed then to stop distribution of his photos from possibly getting on the Internet.
Ralston said he has talked with both Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and with Emerson's sister who lives in Colorado.
"I think that request is sickening. I think it is disgusting. It is vile and very, very hurtful for the family," said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.
Emerson was hiking around Blood Mountain in North Georgia when she was abducted by a man who held her captive for three days before beating her and killing her two years ago. Gary Michael Hilton has pleaded guilty and received a life sentence for the crime, and is awaiting trial for a similar crime in Florida.
Ralston said he will draft the legislation narrowly so that it has a limited impact on closing government papers to public inspection.
"I'm a real proponent of open government. This goes against the grain for me," he said.
It goes against the grain of free-speech advocates as well, like Hollie Manheimer, a lawyer and executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
"We do not need any more exemptions in the Open Records Act. The general rule, clearly, in our state is openness, and each additional exemption moves us further away from this premise," she said.
The existing autopsy exception in the Open Records Act gives GBI sufficient legal authority to turn Hustler away, she said.
Ralston said he's advising the GBI to do just that, but he said the state's lawyers warn that, should the matter go to court, it's no certainty how judges will rule.
Hustler has tangled with Georgia courts before. In 1978, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt was battling obscenity charges when he was shot outside the Gwinnett County Courthouse in Lawrenceville, paralyzing him from the waste down.
"Hustler is aware of the GBI's refusal to honor its reporter's request for copies of the Emerson crime-scenes photos, which were to be used in a news story about this crime," said a statement issued by the magazine. "Hustler and Mr. Flynt disagree with the GBI's position, and are currently exploring all legal options available to them should the decision be made to go forward with the story."
The writer, Fred Rosen, has never written for the magazine, although he's penned 25 true-crime books and dozens of magazine articles. He is a former columnist for the New York Times and an historian who is surprised to be in the middle of such a controversy.
"I didn't understand this," he said by phone from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. "This is what I would do on any story or any book. The decision about what to do with the photos is up to the editor. The reason I'm looking for it is to find the best obtainable version of the truth."
True-crime stories often feature crime-scene photos, but Rosen said he has no idea what Hustler editor Bruce David had planned.
Emerson's case was in the news from the time of her disappearance until Hilton's confession when he helped investigators locate her head and body. He faces the death penalty in a September trial in Tallahassee.
Hilton is implicated in other cases, including two in a federal forest in North Carolina.