- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:

March 3

Morning News, Savannah, Georgia, on proposal to publish legal notices on government-controlled websites:

It’s a familiar ploy: A group of Georgia lawmakers introduces a bill that they claim will benefit citizens. Then, upon closer inspection, the reality seems to be the opposite.

This time, the issue is legal notices that local governments must publish in local newspapers designated as legal organs.

Six Republican senators, mostly from metro Atlanta, are pushing legislation that would let any local government entity publish required notices, advertisements and other items of public business on government-controlled websites. Print publication by independent entities would vanish.

It’s a bad idea. Senators should send SB 186 to the shredder.

In the interest of full disclosure, this newspaper generates revenue from publishing legal ads for governments in Chatham County. We’d hate to see it go away. But there are compelling reasons to maintain the current, long-standing practice, which has kept Georgians informed and governments honest.

First, this proposal imposes new duties on governments that opt for e-notification. This includes creating a website, an index, a repository for paper copies (and an index for that repository) and providing ongoing service of ads by mail or email to anyone who wants to be copied. How much will all this cost taxpayers? No one seems to know. But building a secure website could be expensive. A site that could be hacked would not be sufficient, as electronic documents can be doctored too easily.

And will such changes help citizens become more informed? It seems doubtful. Under current law, when a government agency or official advertises in the legal organ newspaper, the newspaper itself is a permanent record of what was published and when. The newspaper provides copies to the Clerk of Superior Court to be preserved for not less than 50 years. That record cannot be manipulated electronically. The process is easy as well.

Here’s a reality check for metro-Atlanta lawmakers: Many Georgians don’t have computers or Internet access. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to surf the net. By comparison, newspapers are inexpensive.

Of course, the more ways the public can access government information, the better. So here’s one thing that lawmakers who are pushing SB 186 should know: Citizens who want online access to legal notices can find it right now on GeorgiaPublicNotice.com.

Here’s one more thing they should know: That site is free.

Online:

https://savannahnow.com

___

March 1

The Times, Gainesville, Georgia, on proposed “religious liberty” law :

There is an old adage warning those who seek civil discourse to avoid the discussion of politics or religion in social situations.

Civility has never been a priority at the Georgia General Assembly, so it’s no surprise that the issue being debated with the most passion this legislative session combines both those inflammatory topics.

The effort to create a “religious liberty” law in the state has resulted in heated exchanges of legal opinions, hypothetical situations and religious fervor, the most inflammatory of which were the comments made last week by former state attorney general Mike Bowers.

Now in private practice and speaking on behalf of the state’s largest advocacy group for the gay and lesbian community, Bowers warned that passage of a religious liberty bill could open the door to state-sanctioned discrimination, as well as a host of other evils.

Not lost in the debate was the irony of Bowers speaking out on behalf of gays and lesbians, given the fact that when serving as attorney general he garnered national headlines for his strong support of Georgia’s sodomy laws, and once refused a promised position to a potential employee after discovering she was gay.

While much of what Bowers offered falls into the category of political hyperbole rooted in the broadest possible reading of “what if” scenarios, there are elements of his argument that should not be overlooked. Bowers warned that empowering the people of the state with special protection for individual religious liberties could result in abuses by those who would use their beliefs to justify discrimination against specific groups of people.

“The obvious unstated purpose of the proposed (law) is to authorize discrimination against disfavored groups,” Bowers wrote.

Supporters of the legislation were quick to counter, pointing out that the bill allows the courts to determine when there is an overriding public interest that should supersede personal religious convictions. They also pointed out that the proposal mirrors an existing federal law that has been in place since 1993, that such laws now exist in some 31 other states, and that there has not been rampant discrimination against any groups of people as a result.

The debate has divided lawyers, politicians and religious leaders alike. Some in the faith community applaud the effort; some decry it. Some elected officials sing its praises; others fear its potential. One group of legal scholars supports the effort; another opposes it. The speaker of the state House isn’t sure it’s needed; the governor has given it support. Many leaders in the business community are opposed.

It’s not hard to understand the motivation behind such legislation. We have all heard the stories of private business owners and nonprofit groups that refused to provide services of one sort or another because of their personal religious beliefs, only to have the courts tell them they must do so. Examples include the photographer who refused to shoot a gay wedding; the baker who wouldn’t do a wedding cake for a same-sex couple; the faith-based adoption agencies that closed down rather than allow same-sex couples to adopt children.

It is no coincidence that the recent flurry of support for religious liberty laws across the nation comes at the same time the controversy over same-sex marriages is at its peak, as lawmakers try to pit support for religious rights against gender rights. The firing of Atlanta’s fire chief after he authored a book in which he condemned homosexuality based on his personal religious beliefs has added fuel to the fire in Georgia.

At first blush, it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon of support, to state with passion the position that no one should be forced by the courts to do something that violates the tenets of their religious beliefs. But simplistic solutions to complex problems are seldom effective, and there’s no reason to believe that a new religious liberty law for Georgia would be an exception to that rule.

Those who support such legislation have to remember that, if approved, it will apply not just to the beliefs of Christians but to those of all faiths, a position that cannot be ignored given the volatile and often violent confrontations occurring around the world in the name of religion.

We do not think the intent of the legislation is to legalize discrimination against specific groups, but we see how that may be an unintended consequence given the predisposition of individual judges.

We do think the effort is more about politics that religion, a way for conservatives to garner support from the religious right. Remember that it offers no guarantee that religious liberty will be upheld in the courts, but simply sets the stage for judicial decision-making. The courts can still rule that an issue of public concern carries more weight than individual beliefs.

The right to religious liberty is already assured to each of us, through both the U.S. and Georgia constitutions. Those documents have served us well for centuries.

The attempt to gain passage for a new religious liberty law is meant as a way of reinforcing those rights, but could muddy the waters even more when the courts are asked to decide on issues of religious faith vs public good.

More than anything, we wonder at the potential for the legislation to do more harm than good, and question what purpose it will serve beyond sending a political message. Adding another layer of legal debate to freedoms already guaranteed in the Constitution may do more to confuse than improve.

Even a well-intentioned effort can have unintended negative consequences, which we fear will be the case if the pending House and Senate bills ultimately are approved as state law.

Online:

https://www.gainesvilletimes.com

___

March 3

The Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle on Hilary Clinton’s use of personal email:

Why not smoke signals or carrier pigeons? How about secret code or self-destructing memos?

Would any of that have been any less traceable, transparent or taboo than the personal email account Hillary Clinton used to communicate official government business during her four-year term as secretary of state?

Besides the apparent violation of federal records law, Clinton’s unorthodox record-keeping system makes her appear every bit as shadowy, pernicious and deceptive as her husband, whose former job she is expected to seek in 2016 as the top Democratic contender.

She’s not the first government official to be caught conducting the public’s business through private channels, but she very well could be the most willful violator in that all her communications are believed to be off the grid. The notoriously liberal New York Times, which broke the story, reported that Clinton didn’t even have an official government email address during her tenure as America’s top diplomat.

The Times reported the Cabinet-level appointee’s aides made no attempt to preserve her emails on department servers, as required by the Federal Records Act.

Utterly astounding.

Left-leaning MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell called it a “stunning breach of security.” How would the media treat a GOP official in this situation?

It’s enough to make one ponder whether Clinton took a lesson from fellow Obama minion Lois Lerner, or if Lerner and her Internal Revenue Service cohorts took cues from the lawyerly former first lady?

The reason federal law requires that officials retain their letters and emails is so fellow officials, government archivists, the media and the public have an official record. Notice how the word “official” keeps popping up? There was nothing official about Clinton’s shadow system.

With all communiqués stored on a privately maintained server, what the public gets is only what Clinton and her aides choose to share. Considering the security of nongovernmental email systems, foreign spy agencies and hackers are more likely to see Clinton’s communications before American taxpayers do.

There is no reason, other than duplicity, for Clinton to have skirted governmental channels. A former National Archives official quoted by the Times said private emails should be used only in emergencies. He said it is “very difficult to conceive of a scenario - short of nuclear winter - where an agency would be justified in allowing its Cabinet-level head officer to solely use a private email communications channel.”

The Times reported her aides recently handed over about 55,000 pages of emails to the State Department to comply with record-keeping practices. Obviously, the question is not what’s in the emails, but what’s not in the emails.

Though the Times broke the story late Monday, the account’s existence was first discovered by the House select committee investigating the deadly 2012 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

A Clinton spokesman told the Times she is complying with the “letter and spirit of the rules.”

That might be believable - if not for the fact that their assurances that the Clinton Foundation didn’t accept contributions from foreign countries were proved false two weeks ago.

We also might believe Clinton if she ever owned up to the full account of events of Benghazi, instead of dismissing them with “What difference - at this point, what difference does it make?”

We might take her seriously if not for her concocted story of dodging sniper fire in Bosnia as first lady.

Clinton doesn’t deserve to be president of the United States. She doesn’t deserve to be an assistant dog catcher.

She deserves to be charged with violating the Federal Records Act - and depending on email content, perhaps more.

Online:

https://chronicle.augusta.com

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