Georgia Is Fighting to Keep Its Laws Secret — Unless You Pay

For more than three decades, the state of Georgia has charged anyone who wants to see its official state law hundreds of dollars for that privilege. Now the state is suing the non-profit website that purchased a copy of that official compilation and put it on the internet for the public to see.

The problem with all of this? Knowing the law is a right, not a privilege.

We are in court today to argue that a state cannot put a copyright paywall between you and the law that governs you. Georgia takes the troubling position that it can claim a private property right in its entire legal code. The state concedes that it cannot claim a copyright in its statutory language or the text of court opinions. But it somehow believes that because the “Official Code of Georgia Annotated” — which it considers its official law — combines those two sources of public law, it can copyright the result and charge the public a hefty price to see it.

In 2013, a nonprofit called Public Resource paid for the OCGA and posted it online to make Georgia’s state law freely available to the public. In response, the state sued Public Resource. The ACLU, along with a number of other groups, filed an amicus brief in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals defending the public’s right to access its own laws.

The OCGA is the law that the Georgia Legislature editorially controls and publishes. It is the law that the state’s executive agencies enforce. And it is the official state law that courts apply and interpret. Most fundamentally, it is the law that an individual must read to know what behavior is legal and what isn’t. While an unannotated version of the code is available online for free, that version does not constitute the law as enforced today. For example, a person reading the free version might believe that an “offense of sodomy” is punishable by one to 20 years in prison. That individual would also be led to believe that private possession of pornography is illegal. Only by paying more than $400 would she learn that courts have held both of those statutes to be unconstitutional, and the state enforces neither.

In our view, Georgia’s attempt to profit by limiting public access to the law harms at least three fundamental constitutional principles. First, it ignores the public’s role as the true author of the law. Second, without free access to the law, you lack the ability to figure out what is legal and what isn’t. Finally, you have a fundamental First Amendment right to see what your government is up to.

Georgia asserts that such knowledge is a privilege for which people should pay. We believe it is a constitutional right. We hope the court agrees.

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Anonymous

Ignorance of the law IS a valid excuse... if you're a cop. Unfortunately, it's not a valid excuse if you're just an ordinary citizen! And that's one of the big things wrong with our current legal system.

Copyright Carl

It used to be, generally speaking, that the people owned the copyrights in intellectual property created by the government. How is it the government can now claim proprietary intellectual property rights against its own people in the first place? If, by way of taxes, the people are paying for the creation of something for public benefit, shouldn’t the people be able to use it freely ?

Anonymous

Your reasoning is flawless; no sane person could disagree. Which leads me to the inevitable position that a state legislature trying to turn distribution of it's laws into a profit center... is not sane.

Anonymous

This.

Anonymous

This is absurd. I don't even know what else to say.

ERNEST SEGUI

next time a state claims sovereign immunity calmly explain that a requirement of holding office in any state is U.S. Citizenship therefore while Federal law(which it does) may not apply to the state it applies to every member of the government of that state

Anonymous

It is not true you must be an American “citizen” to hold office. It is only true where a rule is put in place. There is nothing the constitution about having to be a citizen to be mayor of your town. Ask, the mayor of Brownsville.

Roy B. Scherer

Similar situation in Virginia, where the unadorned law is available (at https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode ), but the annotated version is published by, and copyrighted by, the Michie company.
I hope the ACLU wins this suit!

Rusty Lea

How can a law that is not published be enforced. If you can be prosecuted for a law that is not published freely and known to all this law can be changed at the whims of the powers to be. This may be an effort to bleed money from the citizens of the state and it may be an effort to scare or prosecute the citizens with non existing laws.
This is one of many reasons I am a member of the ACLU

Ron, Edgewater, FL

I have a feeling Florida has a similar barrier. When I get to the state website, it seems clear what I am reading may not be the law, as enforced.

I am an ordinary guy, a civilian. I have no law degree. I would never have been a lawyer, the job would NOT suit me. I still have read, word for word, several times, a few sections of Florida's Statutes (I now know I may not have been reading the real version). Until catching this article, from the ACLU page, on Facebook, I was under the impression the weird phrases, at the beginning of complete printing of the various sections were just simply a warning label that court decisions since the annual publication, may alter what is enforceable. After reading this article, I have to wonder if what I read is even still law. Perhaps changes have been left undone, for several years. I have read, printed out, and bound those sections of greatest interest to me. Those sections of greatest interest to me are the Traffic, Bicycle & Pedestrian statutes, as a matter of not only keeping myself out of trouble, but out of a need for self-preservation and as a tool, for activism, in Pedestrian and Bicyclist safety. The sections on Concealed Weapons Carry and Security Guard, as a part of what's absolutely necessary, for my protection, and as a part of my job opportunities.

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