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.

View comments (41)
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Anonymous

LMAO.

Anonymous

Since the laws and follow-on annotations were presumably written by legislators paid by the people's taxes, they should be considered work-for-hire, and therefore owned by the "employers," the citizens of GA.

Anonymous

Legacy of the Good Ol' Boy network - traditional southern Democrats.

Clifford McKeithan

Anyone can read and copy the OGCA at the following website. There is no secrecy. https://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/gacode/

Has the ACLU or any of you commenters even tried to access the code. It took me 30 seconds.

Anonymous

I'm in Georgia and has heard about this a while back in passing. It didn't occur to me that it's still an issue.

Sheds some light on our 4th in the nation incarceration rates and 10th in the nation in population.

Thatguy

The official code of Georgia is available free on-line through a link on the Georgia Legislature website: http://www.legis.ga.gov/en-US/default.aspx

A simple Google search will return case law referencing specific code sections.

I get the idea behind the article but let’s not make it sound like the law (the way it’s written) is not accessible to everyone.

Every Judge can potentially have varying interpretations before case law is established anyways.

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Patricia Dell

Hey ‘anonymous’ - have the guts to put your own name in there. Easy to say anything when you remain cloaked in anonimity. If GA does that- why have people stood for it so long? Where is your AG, your Courts? Fire them,

letussee

I am not a fan of the ACLU.
However, they may be on the right track this time.
I am assuming the updating of the laws as they are changing each day by legislation, or case law has to be assimilated and distributed to those enforcing and challenging in courts.

Bureaucracy of government activity is probably not the best, so maybe the State is allowing contractors to record and distribute to legal people, the courts and the lawyers. Contractors want to be paid. Therein is the Rube, lawyers have a monopoly on law information where the Citizen is completely dependent on others.

Information is a tool of the lawyers and the cost is deductable. The Citizen also needs tranquility of independence from lawyers as well as government.

Maybe the cost should be tax supported, or as a fee from the lawyers licensed to operate in the State.

Citizens should have access to the rules controlling their lives without having to pay.
With electronic means this could be achieved today where it wasn't previously.

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