By: Mark Fitzgerald
Georgia, S. Carolina Officials Fail To Uphold Law
The stereotypical Southern sheriff who doesn’t cotton to anyone snooping on police “bid-ness” is alive and well in parts of South Carolina and Georgia, audits of those states’ freedom-of-information (FOI) laws found.
“With the police or sheriffs, it’s almost a genetic response,” said Jan Bender, general counsel for the South Carolina Press Association (SCPA). “They have to be trained that the first answer [to FOI requests] cannot be ‘No.'”
In an audit with The Associated Press and newspapers around the state, the SCPA sent undercover reporters and journalism students to law-enforcement agencies, as well as other city and county offices, making 363 requests for jail logs, crime reports, superintendents’ contracts, meeting minutes, and city and county expense reports. In Georgia, the AP and 11 papers, working with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, sent 75 reporters to make similar requests in 316 visits.
Sheriffs’ offices and police departments in South Carolina and Georgia refused to let surveyors see crime logs 44% of the time, the survey found. In South Carolina, the Union County sheriff not only refused to provide records to Susan Orr, a reporter for the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, he had a deputy look up her license plate, checked with Spartanburg police, and discovered she was a reporter, the AP reported.
Georgian school boards had the same rate of refusal, while South Carolina schools were “suspiciously” compliant, Bender said. “I think they may have figured something was going on because the cooperation was so out of character,” he said. City and county governments were generally forthcoming, providing city council records at an 84% rate in South Carolina and a 93% rate in Georgia.
Mark Fitzgerald ([email protected]) is editor at large for Editor & Publisher magazine.