Telling stories

They Want You to Unsee What You Just Saw

Posted by southwrite on May 28, 2014

Man with Mask


The Washington Post’s Bob Windward once said, “Democracies die in darkness.” These days it seems that a lot of people – from government to business – are doing their best to turn out the lights.

Take for example the Georgia Attorney General’s recent efforts to force a student journalist to remove documents from his blog that had been released to him by the Georgia Board of Regents. Even though they had been obtained in an Open Records request and were now public, the AG’s office wanted everyone to “unsee” them. The move generated quite a bit of controversy and no doubt provided a bigger audience for the documents than would have otherwise existed.

Fortunately the court motion was withdrawn “presumably because it was absurd, had no basis in law, and might as well have been written in crayon, given the quality and seriousness of the state’s arguments.”

The case got started when student newspaper editor David Schick requested documents related to Georgia Perimeter College budget crisis under the Georgia Open Records Act. The Board of Regents at first resisted and then asked for $3,000 to produce the documents. Eventually the board released them including 713 pages of emails and other documents on the finances and presidential searches at the state’s public colleges and universities. To make Schick’s job harder, state employees printed and scanned the documents as JPEGs — making them impossible to search easily. Schick decided to crowdsource the work by posted all of them to his blog.

Among the documents were a small number of pages that identified applicants for college president positions who were not finalists. The Regents could have withheld those pages, and that became the basis for the AG’s attempted takedown order. In other words, we want to make what is already public disappear.

Georgia AG Sam Olens, who has long had a reputation as a proponent of Open Records access, killed the court motion after he heard about it, according to a spokesman. (Based on my experience interviewing him for various stories over the years, I tend to buy that explanation.) Yet, one or more attorneys in his office apparently thought this was a really great idea. That’s disturbing.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that government officials have engaged in this kind of fantasy. After the great WikiLeaks document release, the Pentagon ordered all personnel not to see what was then appearing in every newspaper and media outlet around the world. That may have been one of the most ridiculous efforts ever, but it tells you a lot about how the bureaucratic mind works.

Officials keep trying to get away with it. Once information becomes public you can’t stuff it back in a box and say “move along, you didn’t see anything here.” That’s the kind of actions authoritarian governments take to keep their citizens under control. It has no place here and this time it doesn’t.

We can be thankful to David Schick that it didn’t win this time. Next time? Who knows.



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