I got a couple of emails yesterday about MaconDawg’s much ado about nothing post regarding SB 323 asking me what I thought about it. Honestly, some of what he writes strikes me as spot on and some not so much.
For example, he’s got the big picture right.
And so it should not be terribly surprising that the Georgia legislature passed a bill (really an amendment to a bill) which now gives state athletic departments 90 days to acknowledge their receipt of information requests (commonly called Freedom of Information Act or “FOIA” requests) rather than the prior statutory 3 days. Journalists, including journalists with SB Nation, have come out swinging against this. I want to be clear about something right up front: I agree with them. At its heart this new law is designed to keep information hidden from the public for longer. Anyone, whether the bill’s proponents, the Lieutenant Governor, or Kirby Smart who tells you differently is lying right to your face.
But it’s when he turns to explaining a number of reasons why this isn’t as a big deal as it may seem that I have to differ with him. Start with this:
And here’s where opponents of the new law are missing the boat. Under the existing law in Georgia, and almost every other FOIA law in the nation, there was no firm deadline on how long they had to get me all the documents. Courts have awarded penalties (usually attorney’s fees) in cases where the institution is clearly stonewalling. And a court may make the state show what affirmative steps it has taken to gather and provide the information. But at no time has anyone in the UGA Athletic Association been under a duty to get me all the information which I seek within 3 days. Never. And there is no firm guidance regarding what information is immediately available.
This law, at least as I read it, doesn’t eliminate university officials’ duty to respond to my request in a reasonably timely manner. It gives them 90 days to tell me they a) don’t have the information I requested, b) need additional information to determine whether they have it, c) won’t be turning it over because they don’t have to (for reasons of student privacy, for example), or d) will get it to me sometime before the Big Bang Theory gets cancelled.
That’s not inaccurate as far as it goes, but then he adds this as a conclusion: “This new law does not prevent the UGA Athletic Association from obfuscating and buying time. Nor however does it allow them to do so where they couldn’t before.” Well, except for that whole thing about not even letting the requesting party know whether any information exists in the first place for an additional eighty-seven days, I suppose he’s right.
And this strikes me as somewhat wishful thinking:
… Also bear in mind that there’s nothing in this new law that requires athletic associations to wait 90 days before responding. If I make a fairly simple request for readily available information I’d still expect that the folks in Athens will probably get it to me within a few days, as before.
The issue, it seems to me, won’t be over how simple a request is, or how readily available such information may be. It’ll be how comfortable the athletic department is about letting the world know it exists when the request is made. And that is really what lies at the heart and soul of the new law – that some potentially unpleasant matters are time sensitive and don’t have a particularly lengthy shelf life. Why should we expect Butts-Mehre to respond any sooner than it absolutely has to in such cases?
No, the world isn’t going to end because of SB 323. And, like MaconDawg, I don’t expect the school to use this new law as an excuse to behave in an egregiously nefarious way. But if this law is such a benign thing, again, all I can go back to in response is to question the way in which it passed, as I did in this post:
So, ultimately, here’s what you’re being asked to swallow here:
- In the midst of recruiting, organizing the program and his very first spring practice preparation, Kirby Smart somehow found the time to show up for a friendly chat with the folks in the Georgia General Assembly.
- In the midst of a typically contentious session, members of the Georgia General Assembly found the time to ask what could be done to help the Georgia football program.
- Kirby Smart casually mentioned that Nick Saban has an easier time of responding to open records requests but didn’t make a big deal of it, even though he’s described as “the key influence to members of the General Assembly deciding to act”.
- Just as casually, Georgia legislators tacked an amendment on to an existing bill that gives Butts-Mehre unprecedented scope in responding to open records requests in the future.
- Even though the bill’s scope clearly exceeds the stated nonsensical goal of protecting recruiting secrets, neither Georgia’s athletic director nor its president had anything to do with it.
Georgia wasn’t acting like it was such a small thing when it pushed for this, so why should we believe it’s a small thing now that it exists?