Introducing the Stanley Awards for Georgia’s worst suppressions of First Amendment and open government
By John Ruch
Politicians and administrators who would be kings, cops who confuse policing with a police state, educators who need a First Amendment education, moral-panic censors, smoke-filled rooms and star chambers – Georgia’s got ’em all.
So does everyplace else, but some organizations elsewhere have created a rogue’s gallery to spotlight the worst of these outrages on free speech, free press and open government. Sarcastic annual “awards” include the New England Muzzles from Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy and GBH News and the national Golden Padlocks bestowed by the nonprofit Investigative Reporters and Editors.
In that name-and-shame spirit, I’m proud to announce the debut of my Stanley Suppression Awards for Georgia’s worst attempts to stifle First Amendment activity and cloud government transparency.
Their namesake is Stanley v. Georgia, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment case from right here in Atlanta. Unable to find illegal gambling evidence at the home of one Robert E. Stanley, angry police officers instead charged him with possession of obscene materials for some supposedly mind-corrupting porno movies they found in a desk drawer. The court unanimously told the cops to get out of Stanley’s bedroom and brain, with Justice Thurgood Marshall memorably writing: “Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men’s minds.” (Or, as we can add thanks to the First Amendment: “And anyone’s minds, my dude.”)
I took nominations from other journalists, the executive director and board members at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, and my own sordid experiences, resulting in a list that was depressingly long before I narrowed it down to 10. Without further ado, here are the winners of the 2022 Stanleys. (The public is always the loser.)
Public Service Commission meetings, minus the public
Just before opening hearings on a Georgia Power rate hike, the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), a utility regulation board, set new rules limiting public participation that ran into conflict with the Georgia Open Meetings Act. After a public comment period, anyone not directly involved in a hearing had to leave the room, and anyone unable to speak before that one-hour comment period ended had to come back for the next hearing.
Amid pressure from the press and the Georgia First Amendment Foundation (GFAF), the PSC argued it hadn’t enforced the rules and based them on space limitations caused by busier hearings – but not why it didn’t just get a bigger room instead of setting a policy of kicking out the public. Chair Tricia Pridemore told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it “has never been more open to the public in its history,” a classic hyperbole deployed by agencies that either didn’t think about suppressive consequences or are mad they got caught.
That was hardly the PSC’s only accountability problem this year. Elections for two of its seats were put on hold in a legal challenge to its eccentric system of statewide voting for district seats, which a judge said is rooted in an intent to dilute Black communities’ votes. Patty Durand, a candidate in one of those races, sued sitting commissioner Tim Echols for allegedly violating her First Amendment rights by blocking her on social media for criticizing him.
Time for a reminder to the PSC that its name starts with “public.”
Atlanta Public Schools bans a reporter from a public meeting
APS clearly needs First Amendment schooling after brazenly banning a reporter from a public meeting in a public school.
AJC reporter Vanessa McCray in September reported on a meeting at David T. Howard Middle School between administrators and about 100 parents concerned about class sizes, teacher vacancies and gifted class schedules – in short, with a lot of potentially embarrassing debate. McCray was headed off at the school by Seth Coleman, APS’s media relations chief, who barred her from the meeting, kept watch over her and said she could talk to parents after they left.
Asked by the AJC what legal grounds APS claimed for the ban, the district gave none. Instead, it issued a sanctimonious statement claiming that the meeting was “free from media presence to support the open exchange of information and feedback” and “open, honest, and productive dialogue.”
The notion that reporters chill, rather than encourage, speech is one of those patently false gaslighting claims PR people deploy when people are clamoring to talk to the press. Of course, a major reason the media exists is precisely because many officials will otherwise keep secrets and tell lies all day long. And regardless, a public meeting in a public building is public, period. This suppression would be unacceptable from any government agency but is especially outrageous in a system tasked in part with teaching students to become citizens of a democracy.
The pot-smoke-filled room of medical cannabis licensing
The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission was supposed to become a baby step toward licensing medical-use cannabis oil. Instead, it’s become a black box of privatized information and, incredibly, totally secret administrative court records. And that’s already a real problem, with companies turned down for licenses complaining that unqualified competitors won – but no way for anyone outside the system to check.
As explained by Richard T. Griffiths, a retired top CNN editor and former GFAF president, the root of the evil is a “trade secrets” Open Records Act exemption in the licensing legislation that has metastasized to cover virtually everything it does. Griffiths noted such insanity as a winning company’s application posted online but almost completely redacted, with hundreds of pages entirely blacked out. The Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings, which is hearing the losers’ complaints, has imposed an extraordinary blanket seal on all records, contradicting America’s tradition of public trials.
Business deals are already a problematic excuse for secrecy in the state government’s opaque systems of tax breaks and other incentives for corporate moves. The GFAF is fighting in court for the records to be unsealed in this especially shameless sub-system and deserves public support.
Atlanta tries to kill its own public input group
The City of Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Units (NPU) system is a remarkable and robust system of grassroots committees that, for nearly a half-century, has advised the government on virtually every issue.
It has also had its share of transparency problems, exacerbated by the City’s hands-off approach and a blunder by the City’s chief transparency officer in misreading a state legal opinion as saying the Open Meetings Act does not apply to NPUs. So it was great news to hear this year that the Department of City Planning (DCP), at the urging of new City Councilmember Byron Amos, was instituting a slate of transparency-oriented NPU reforms and offering more resources.
Thus, it was even more bizarre when DCP just weeks later announced a plan to unilaterally kill one of the most troublesome groups, Southwest Atlanta’s NPU-R, and redraw the boundaries of others. Offered without explanation and under the Orwellian name “Neighborhood Strong,” the death penalty had no apparent appeals process and the executioner was to be a mid-level City administrator who dubbed herself a “visionary.”
The City Council gave the idea a cold shower and its political motivations have yet to be untangled. But ultimately this was a perverse assault on a storied public input system by administrators acting less like temporary public servants and more like dictators.
The Georgia Senate tries to criminalize protests
Georgia Senate Bill 171, distractingly named the “Safe Communities Act,” was a near-miss for First Amendment rights last session and could return in some form in January.
Aimed at cracking down on political protest activity, it would have required a government permit for many demonstrations, elevated blocking a street or defacing a monument into heavy-duty felonies, and allowed an assembly to be considered as a potential criminal conspiracy that could be prosecuted as organized crime. It also would have created an affirmative defense for anyone who ran over protesters with a vehicle out of fear for their own safety.
As noted by the First Amendment Clinic at UGA’s School of Law, the motivation was reactionary counter-messaging aimed at defending Confederate monuments, chilling Black Lives Matter and its (already illegal) highway-blockade tactics, and endorsing the far-right fantasies of running down such road-blocking protesters made real by a neo-Nazi terrorist at 2017’s infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.
If you don’t plan on joining a march, you still have a lot to worry about from such laws. Any law that targets protesters can and will be used against bystanders and journalists. And anyone with a phone and internet connection can be a journalist. A classic case is Darnella Frazier, the citizen whose crucial video of George Floyd’s murder is why many of these protests happened in the first place.
The Fulton DA turns journalists into witnesses
When the government isn’t trying to turn journalists into criminals, it’s often trying to turn them into cops.
A high-profile example this year was Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis calling journalists to testify before a grand jury for her investigation of former President Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Giving info to state prosecutors in a secret proceeding where protecting confidential sources may be impossible is just about the antithesis of a free press, and partly restricted by a state “shield law.”
The AJC and independent journalist George Chidi pushed back on subpoenas, with the latter ultimately testifying under an agreement to keep the scope of questions limited. Chidi said he didn’t mind answering some questions given the extraordinary threat to democracy involved.
On the other hand, extraordinary situations are when we need First Amendment protections the most, and precedents set in crisis have a way of turning into everyday practice. As the late criminal defense attorney Page Pate told me, the DA was going down a “dangerous road” and Georgia’s shield law needs strengthening.
School library censors vs. school board meeting censors
Like previous moral panics where soccer moms are enlisted as fronts for deeply insane, bigoted conspiracy theorists and Christian nationalists (see also, Tipper Gore and the PMRC), the mania about books in school libraries has spread with such wildfire speed that it’s hard to keep track. However, Georgia offered perhaps the ultimate example – and logical conclusion – in a head-on collision between library censors and school board meeting censors.
As reported by ProPublica and the Forsyth County News, the dispute arose out of the library-book activism in Forsyth by a group of crusading moms calling themselves the Mama Bears, who took to reading what they consider to be obscene passages from books at County school board meetings to get them banned. The school board, meanwhile, banned anyone from using such strong language in public comments.
This came to a head in March when Mama Bears’ Alison Hair tried again and got shut down, triggering an argument with school board Chair Wes McCall. McCall ordered everyone out of the room, and he and other board members barred Hair from future public comments unless she agreed in writing to follow their policies.
Hair and another Mama Bear sued, and a federal judge has quite properly issued a temporary injunction against parts of the school board policy, allowing “profane” (but not “obscene”) comments and generally being disagreeable. Thus we have a victory for Mama Bears’ Constitutional right to speech in their war against those of children, teachers and authors.
This is where censorship takes us: down a rabbit hole with hypocrites and ignoramuses wrestling each other until they hit the bottom. Meanwhile, that leaves fewer and fewer parents and educators qualified to teach children to be citizens of the country with the First Amendment.
A state rep. hunts social justice witches in state universities
State Rep. David Knight (R-Griffin) in February hit the University System of Georgia (USG) with a massive request for data related to the funding of social justice education and activities, including the use of specific antiracist books. The request was in the form of a ponderous, 11-page letter written in a pseudo-legal style and apparently confused professor Robin DiAngelo with movie actress Beverly D’Angelo.
It was presented as a funding investigation in Knight’s role as chair of a House Appropriations Committee subcommittee on higher education. But, as my colleague Tom Baxter noted, you didn’t need a Captain Midnight decoder ring to see it was really about harassing and chilling USG departments and professors in a time of critical race theory panic fanned by national and Georgia Republicans, like more direct witch hunts in Georgia’s past against educators who advocated racial equality.
A larger context was USG’s move four months earlier to make it easier to fire tenured professors, a policy change that drew controversy and protests as endangering academic freedom. Strong oversight or criticisms of public universities is great; bad-faith retaliation on professors’ and students’ speech is not.
Inspectors shoot down Buckhead cityhood sign
Signs are a classic part of political speech – and also a classic target of political censorship. So one had to be skeptical when City of Atlanta inspectors, based on an unusually formal and knowledgeable anonymous complaint, issued a citation against a sign atop the headquarters of the group advocating that Buckhead become its own city.
Maybe the sign, reading “@BuckheadCityGA,” indeed technically violated the obscure and finicky local zoning overlay code. Much more important was its role in one of the state’s top political debates. The Buckhead City Committee was forced to replace the sign with a slightly altered version, which it happened to be able to afford.
Such petty, speech-reducing shots are something inspectors need to be wary of, especially in controversies involving the City itself. In the end, Buckhead cityhood flamed out due to more of its speech, not less.
Atlanta public safety training center secrecy and policing
Where to begin with a project so problematic, it could have filled this entire list with its progression from open-government farce to perhaps the entire Southeast’s biggest threat to First Amendment rights?
Well, there’s the beginning: a plan crafted secretly by City officials, undisclosed corporate leaders and the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) – itself a black box of police funding and planning — with no public needs assessment or site analysis, and placed on a site in DeKalb County with the advantage of no neighbors having direct political representation. Amid public outcry and the burgeoning Defend the Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City protest movements, the City Council last year approved the plan but tossed a bone to transparency concerns by creating the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC).
Awkwardly run by the APF itself and containing both local residents and City officials, the CSAC has had many transparency issues. Its website of meeting minutes and other info hasn’t been updated since August and remains incomplete, and the group this year agreed not to review the facility’s land disturbance permit – a public document essential to the plan – on the APF’s classic secrecy excuse of “security.” In a likely First Amendment violation, the CSAC kicked off one of its own members for publicly criticizing the plan and attempted to ban members from talking to the media – yet later embraced the Atlanta Police Department’s (APD) encouragement that members spread a political “narrative” that protesters are outsider terrorists under an expanded definition of that crime.
That idea followed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) charging five protesters with domestic terrorism in what appears to be a guilt-by-association claim. Protesters say the charges are an inflated attempt to chill free speech, which seems to be at the least an acceptable byproduct to the GBI and other police agencies who have refused to explain the exact grounds of the terrorism accusations and what they will count as “terrorism” in the future.
APD’s second-in-command recently crowed about the pretextual arrest of someone for filming police at the training center site, and now APD officers — including a major — are under internal investigation for pressuring a journalist covering the protests to delete his footage. Civil rights attorneys allege that APD is engaging in a pattern of illegal arrests of protesters and journalists that is verging into counter-protesting against police reform.
Some destructive and intimidating acts by protesters, like tossing Molotov cocktails and setting up police-style checkpoints, are also chilling speech, as I’ve found with potential sources in the area. But that civilian minority can’t compare with the chilling effect and power that local, state and federal governments can bring. The corporate leverage also has implications, not the least of which is fundraising being led by Alex Taylor, CEO of the company that owns the AJC and Axios – major news media that we rely on to force transparency and accountability on government.
Atlanta leaders have consistently ignored many red flags sent up by this project – or worse, sat in CSAC meetings saluting them. The situation has already degenerated, via false-dichotomy politics inimical to free speech and open government, from “support this or you don’t support police” to “you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” It’s only getting worse, with the City poised to face a raft of First Amendment lawsuits and national embarrassment. Heading off such disasters is exactly why we have free speech, free press and open government, and some responsible leaders should step in to reestablish that public authority over this project before it’s too late.