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Journalism ethics bill co-sponsor says, ‘We’re taking nobody’s First Amendment away'
State Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville - photo by Nick Bowman / Gainesville Times

Georgia lawmakers will consider legislation next year that would have a drastic effect on news organizations.

The Ethics in Journalism Act was introduced by State Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, on April 2, the last day of the legislative session this year. It won’t be available for lawmakers to consider until they return in January 2020. Media outlets have since reported that Welch has resigned.

State Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, who represents part of South Hall, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The bill would establish a state Journalism Ethics Board, which would have three editors, three news producers, one retired journalism professor and two journalists who write or broadcast exclusively online.

The board would create “canons of ethics,” develop a voluntary accreditation process and receive complaints from Georgia residents about alleged ethical violations. The board would also be able to investigate accredited journalists or news organizations and issue sanctions.

Journalists would be required to provide free copies of audio or video recordings as well as photographs to anyone they interview.

Barr said the voluntary nature of accreditation addresses First Amendment concerns.

"We're taking nobody's First Amendment away. It's completely voluntary. The board is made up of journalists," he said.

Accreditation could be a "stamp of good housekeeping" for news organizations, particularly smaller blogs or websites, Barr said. The accreditation could be a way for news outlets to prove accountability in reporting, he said.

"Mostly this would be directed toward folks that wouldn't have a big organization behind them," Barr said. "I think it would be a good way for smaller organizations, smaller internet blog-type outlets to be able to get a stamp of approval such as, I keep referring back to, maybe a chamber of commerce."

Barr said in the current political climate, many people do not trust either the media or the government.

"With our current temperature with folks not trusting media, I think Congress has a worse public opinion," he said.

Barr said he understands concerns about news organizations being required to provide materials like recordings or photos for free, and he has considered changing the bill to allow journalists to charge fees for those materials.

The Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists denounced the bill in a statement, saying it conflicts with the First Amendment.

“The bill is clearly meant to intimidate journalists and chill the important work of holding powerful people and organizations accountable for their actions,” the statement reads.

The statement also notes that “the bill would also hold journalists to a higher standard than the legislators who are proposing it” because the Georgia General Assembly and its offices are exempt from open records requests.

News organizations would be required to provide their work to sources free of charge, while government agencies charge for records, a discrepancy the SPJ Georgia said was hypocritical.

"There are certainly existing standards of ethical behavior to which journalists should adhere, and none of us in the profession should be above having our professional behavior scrutinized,” said Forsyth County News General Manager Norman Baggs. “But the last thing we want to do is start down the slippery slope of having any form of direct government control over the press. That's truly a dangerous precedent to set.  It's a short step from a government board that can 'sanction' a journalist to one that can take more punitive measures in an effort to control the news. It's hard to believe anyone thinks that is a good idea."