Georgia legislation would give college athletic departments three months to respond to records requests

GEORGIA — State lawmakers passed legislation this week that would give athletic departments at public colleges about three months to respond to public record requests, instead of three days as outlined under the state’s public record law.

This will allow large athletic programs like the University of Georgia to delay the release of financial information, like how much was spent on the department’s new indoor football practice facility and their recent increase in spending on football recruiting.

The measure was drafted as an amendment, tacked on to Senate Bill 323, which applies to public records related to economic development projects, and passed through both chambers of the legislature in two days. The bill is now on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk. As of today, he has 40 days to veto the legislation, sign it into law or let it become law without his signature.

UGA head football coach Kirby Smart might have been involved in pushing the amendment through the legislature, according to media reports. The UGA athletics department did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s request for comment.

College athletic programs have traditionally been close-fisted with public records, often invoking the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which is meant to protect students’ educational records, to deny public records requests.

The amendment would apply to all athletic departments under the University System of Georgia, including Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern and Georgia State.

“This amendment — at the eleventh hour of the legislative session — is an affront to the purpose of Georgia’s open records act, and all citizens should be disturbed,” Hollie Manheimer, executive director at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said in a statement. “The amendment would bar citizen access to the records of the University System athletic departments for 90 days.”

The sole exception to the amendment would apply to salary information for “non-clerical staff,” which would include various athletic department staff members and coaches.

Under the state’s Open Records Act, government agencies — which includes public universities — are required to release public records in three business days. If the files are not available at the time of request, the agency must provide a timeline for when the documents will be available, according to the law.

“No other public agency in Georgia is given 90 days to conduct its business in secret.” Manheimer said.

Daniel Funke, editor-in-chief of The Red and Black, UGA’s student-run newspaper, said the amendment adds another barrier for reporters who want to get into investigative journalism.

“It’s totally at the detriment of student journalists,” he said, adding that long-term stories on the athletic department could be more difficult to conduct if the bill is signed into law.

Funke said editors at The Red and Black transition each semester — so waiting 90 days for records can take up a large part of the time a student is in an editing position. If the bill is signed into law, he said he fears that documents would fall through the cracks as the editing staff transitions at the end of each semester. And many times, he said, a records request is just the start of a story brainstorming process.

“To me, it seems like a long time to wait for something that’s not a sure payoff,” Funke said.

Rep. Earl Ehrhart, who co-sponsored the amendment, declined the Student Press Law Center’s request for comment.

But according to an article in The Telegraph, Erhart said the amendment would put Georgia on a “level playing field” with other states that are allowed extra time for providing public record requests. He said athletic departments are overwhelmed by public record requests near the end of recruiting season and do not have the capacity to keep up with the requests.

“We’re certainly not asking for an exception of any sort, just an extended time,” he said in the article. “We want to put ourselves on the same playing field as all the other states.”

The public records statutes in states adjoining Georgia — Alabama, Florida and South Carolina — do not provide college athletic departments any special extension of time for responding to public-records requests beyond what any other agency would receive.

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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