Legislation to redact government officials’ information from public records in Georgia falls short

by Aaleah McConnell, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

March 7, 2023

Laws that would protect a government employee’s personal information from public records did not survive Crossover Day.

State senators refused to comment on Senate Bill 176, which proposed blacking out government employees’ personal information, such as home addresses, phone numbers and Social Security IDs, from public records.

A broader redaction bill, Senate Bill 215, passed the Senate 53-0.

Monday was Crossover Day, the last day of the 2023 legislative session for a bill to clear a chamber for a smooth path to the governor’s desk.

Unlike SB 215, the bill, which died a silent death, proposed allowing officials to bring civil charges that could result in a misdemeanor charge for people who knowingly release a government official’s private information with malicious intent, Sponsor said Senator Jason Esteves, an Atlanta Democrat.

“If someone is upset with a police officer or a judge and posts their home address and personal phone number on social media to harass that person, this bill would allow for a civil remedy and misdemeanor against that person,” Esteves said.

Modeled on New Jersey’s Daniel’s Law, the intended protective shield was written in response to growing threats against state officials and judges, who are often involved in politically charged decisions.

Free speech advocates have expressed concern about the unintended consequences of similar legislation elsewhere.

The redactions could result in slower response times to records-disclosure requests and even lead to authorities taking their records offline for fear of legal risk if they inadvertently disclose a government employee’s personal information.

“We know these bills are well-intentioned, we know there are potential problems here, but we don’t think these bills will solve those problems without potentially causing chaos,” said Georgia First’s Richard T. Griffiths Amendment Foundation.

This bill is narrower than what the Senate passed unanimously, Esteves said.

“I think the intention behind the bill is to target information that is released with the intention of harassing and disregarding the well-being of the health of someone and their family,” Esteves said.

Esteves’ proposal could still be added as a provision to SB 215 to be settled in the House of Representatives chamber as the future draws closer.

“There are ways to protect identities or where people live that aren’t a concern of the First Amendment,” Esteves said. “There’s always a balance between the right to know, the right to freedom of expression and someone’s safety.”

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