IT IS HARD to tell sometimes if Georgia’s legislators simply don’t understand English or if they know it all too well. The number of proposals that start out with wording aimed at one objective when announced and then say something totally different by the time approved has become astounding.
Worse yet, some in the General Assembly appear increasingly prone to seize upon the “hot button” issue of the moment to slop out a bill in reaction — no, that’s not a typo and “slap out” was not intended as we’re discussing slop here.
An excellent case in point is House Bill 1322, which would strip the public of the right to know much that its public servants do that breaks existing laws, if not bones. The measure, which unanimously has passed both House and Senate, was amended in the latter body so as to make sure citizens could never know, much less see and hear in this age where everything is recorded, the evils done in their name. It was actually accomplished during Sunshine Week, an annual event to promote open government,
When HB 1322 began, it was supposedly intended only to keep the profit motive out of catering to ghoulish interests. This was doubtless in tune with majority sentiments although based more on emotions than reflection. Many had been understandably appalled by a request from a “true crime” writer under contract to Hustler magazine for copies of crime-scene photos of the nude, dismembered body of Meredith Emerson, murdered in the North Georgia mountains in January 2008. The culprit, suspected in other similar crimes, has already been caught and convicted.
THE YOUNG woman’s family didn’t like the request and no doubt most everyone else had visions of Ms. Emerson’s remains being published in a “skin mag.” Obviously, if Hustler wanted it there had to be “prurient interest,” right?
It might be wise to remember that “scandal sheets” and similar, including a lot of web-only investigative sites, have the same “freedom of the press” rights, and use similar “credentialed” personnel as those of which the new measure speaks, as does this newspaper. Fact is, if somebody like the Rome News-Tribune or New York Times had wanted access to those same photos, no murmur would likely have arisen. Obviously, we are “legitimate” and of good reputation hence must have a valid reason to look at them.
However, that “credentialed” alone was a warning signal, though few saw looming danger in it. What the heck is a “credentialed” journalist anyway? Someone under contract to Hustler, a magazine operating with free-press rights just as does this newspaper, is “credentialed.” Does the legislature mean somebody with a college degree in journalism? Or does it mean that the state is planning to “license” reporters of any sort as it does medical professionals of any sort?
Besides, both bad taste and lousy manners are perfectly legal even if not laudable. Not only Hustler but much in our current culture — print, TV, film, music, the Internet and more — lives upon the profits of catering to poor tastes and manners. Hence, this can be seen as yet another effort to further have government assume a “big daddy” role by restricting personal choices — largely rotten ones, to be sure, but still a matter of personal preference and liberty.
THE MEASURE turned the corner of Iffy Street and wandered onto Lunacy Boulevard when the Senate adopted by amendment from Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, to additionally block the release of many audio and video recordings made by police, 911 and similar agencies to anyone, including “credentialed media.”
These are, lest anyone forget as the Senate did, recordings made using public funds on public equipment with the intention of monitoring public services to make certain they are being done properly by public employees. That’s about as clearly “the public’s business” to know as anything can be.
So, as now passed (the House still has to agree to the amendment) the law starting July 1 would be that citizens cannot see or learn of “the records of a law-enforcement agency, an emergency 911 system, a public-health agency or any other similar agency when such records consist of or contain audio or video recordings of the personal suffering of a crime victim, disaster victim or other person in physical pain or distress; and public dissemination of such records would cause emotional distress to the person whose suffering was so recorded or to the family of such person.”
As most citizens know — from having seen a steady diet of such things on the news — a person being beaten, Tasered, kicked and so forth by a passel of officers during arrest is in “physical pain or distress” even if the force was justifiable. A family involved in a domestic disturbance 911 call ending in violence is certain to have “emotional distress” every time it is replayed. And so forth.
JUST AS important to remember, these recordings are not only what get some police officers and similar into trouble, they also protect the overwhelming majority of good cops and other government employees from the minority of “bad eggs” or “short fuses” in their departments. Not only in Georgia but across the nation such electronic advances have brought much to light and corrected many wrongs. Returning to the Dark Ages of hushed-up abuses and errors by government is not acceptable.
When HB 1322 started out it was only about blocking access to “certain photographs fewer than five years old which are in the custody of a law-enforcement agency which show graphic images of the sexual organs or the dismemberment of the dead body of a crime victim whose identity is known.”
Now look at where it is — and on the verge of becoming law. It would keep not only “credentialed media” but all citizens from ever learning about far more than bad taste and terrible manners. It will allow actual crimes, abuse of authority and “firing offenses” to be concealed from the eyes of all citizens.
A measure that began as an effort to block distribution of lewd crime-scene photos threatens to become, at the hands of the serial linguistic rapists in the legislature, a denial of the public’s right to know. That elevates this issue well beyond a matter of bad taste and puts it into the category of being obscene.