Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law yesterday legislation that will give state university athletic departments an unprecedented right to delay responding to open records requests. This is good news for that state’s biggest programs—new UGA football coach Kirby Smart personally lobbied lawmakers—and bad news for transparency.
As taxpayer-funded institutions, Georgia’s public colleges (including UGA, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and Georgia Southern) previously had three days to acknowledge requests made under the Freedom of Information Act. Not three days to turn over what reporters were looking for—three days merely to say “we got your request, we’re reviewing it.” Now, thanks to this new law, university athletic programs don’t have to even acknowledge requests for 90 business days, and can commence the usual obfuscation after that.
No other institution in the country, be it an athletic program or the federal government, allows a delay nearly as long as Georgia now does.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said David Cuillier, an expert on Freedom of Information laws, who is an associate professor at the University of Arizona. “This is crazy. My jaw dropped to the floor when I saw that.”
“Is it reasonable to drag your heels for 90 days, for something you could probably turn over the same day, or very quickly?” Cuillier said. “Ninety days I have never seen. That is unheard of. I have never seen a football program, or any government agency, have the ability to hide the information from the public for that long.
“It makes them look bad. What do they have to hide? I don’t think it builds public trust.”
The new law passed as quietly as possible, and was easy to miss. (It was perhaps designed to be missed.) It was tacked on as an amendment to an entirely unrelated measure, then overwhelmingly passed by lawmakers after midnight on the next-to-last day of the legislative session.
A spokesman for Deal said the governor signed the bill into law because “it simply levels the playing field with other states that also have strong athletic programs like Georgia.” This is not true.
Other SEC states give athletic programs between three and 15 days to respond to FOIA requests. (The exceptions are Florida and Alabama, which require athletic departments to respond in a “reasonable” amount of time.)
The law is certainly welcomed by Kirby Smart, under whom the Bulldogs are ramping up spending (and will now be able to keep its spending secret for much longer). Smart visited the State Capitol to discuss the bill with lawmakers for four hours shortly before they passed it, and the chief of staff of one the bill’s co-sponsors said Smart was the prime mover behind the legislation.
“It’s a similar subject that, from what I understand, came to light through Kirby Smart at UGA,” Krause said. “It had to do with football teams or athletic departments that are recruiting people in state of Georgia. They had a (shorter) window where the documents were not yet public, but other states had 90 days.”
(Again, despite this claim, no other state allows 90 business days.)
Smart has attempted to downplay his role in the bill’s passing, telling a radio interviewer today that it’s “ridiculous” that it’s being called “Kirby’s Law.” “I had very little to do with that,” Smart said. But at the very least, he will happily reap the benefits of keeping public records private for that much longer.
Georgia’s lieutenant governor said of the new law, “I hope it brings us a national championship.”