New Georgia records law extends response period for college athletics

Georgia's public college athletic associations now have far more time to respond to open records requests under legislation signed into law Monday by Gov. Nathan Deal despite an uproar from First Amendment advocates.

The legislation, Senate Bill 323, allows the athletic departments at the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and other state colleges to wait 90 days before responding to Open Records Act requests. Athletic associations, like all state agencies, previously had three days to acknowledge the requests.

Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber Ryan said the governor supported the new rules because "it simply levels the playing field with other states that also have strong athletic programs like Georgia."

Lawmakers approved the measure after a visit by new Georgia football coach Kirby Smart, who said he was asked about it during his March sojourn to the statehouse. It soon was tacked on to an unrelated measure and was swiftly passed after midnight on the second-to-last day of the legislative session.

Public records advocates encouraged Deal to veto the measure. Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation called it an "affront" to Georgia's public records laws. And David Cuillier, a University of Arizona professor who is an expert on Freedom of Information laws, said his "jaw dropped to the floor" when he saw the language.

There was little doubt that Deal would sign it, though. The exemption was added to a separate measure sought by the governor that would allow state agencies to reject records requests involving ongoing economic development projects until the deal is made public.

The legislation, which received the overwhelming support of lawmakers from both parties, would exempt salary information for coaches and executives from the 90-day rule. But it would delay the release of a range of other potentially newsworthy details, including capital projects such as new facilities and recruiting spending.

Public record laws in most other Southern states don't give college athletic departments any time extension for responding to records requests, according to the Student Press Law Center, though several allow for an open-ended "reasonable" time to answer a request.

A survey of other states with schools in the Southeastern Conference found that most were required to respond to records requests within three to 10 days. South Carolina gives officials 15 days to respond, while Mississippi requires seven days to acknowledge a request and 14 to fulfill it.

Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said the legislation "helps us tremendously," though he said the school had nothing to do with proposing it. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the university has received roughly 100 records requests in the first three months of the year, which can overwhelm his staff.

“They’re very lengthy and it takes a lot of time just to estimate the time and effort it takes for those people who are doing their regular job, not necessarily to stop everything to provide this information,” McGarity said. “And some of that stuff has to be done after hours. Because it’s not like we have staff that are sitting idly by just to deal with this.”

Open records advocates warn that other state agencies could soon push for the same delay that athletics programs won.

Manheimer said that the law is so broadly written that it shields contract terms, complaint letters from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, spending projects and more from the public eye.

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