For decades, the citizens of Georgia were not able to see the laws governing them without paying a fee.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled on October 19, 2018, that the state can no longer do this.
“For decades, Georgia ignored this reality. Rather than make the text of the law freely available, the state pay-walled access to the statutes, court opinions, and annotations that make up its official law,” aclu.org reports.
But the nonprofit Public.Resource.Org, led by open records activist Carl Malamud, got the ball rolling to change that. It purchased a hard copy of the state’s official code, then placed it online at no charge. That way people could avoid paying sometimes hundreds of dollars to see laws that govern them. “Malamud then scanned the books, and sent each Georgia legislator a USB stick with two full copies—one of the scanned OCGA, and another encoded in XML format,” eff.org reports. “‘Access to the law is a fundamental aspect of our system of democracy, an essential element of due process, equal protection, and access to justice,’” wrote Malamud in the letter he included in the package.”
In response, the state sued the nonprofit organization for copyright infringement, saying the law can be privatized because of the annotations added by LexisNexis, a private company and state contractor. The state collects royalties from sales of the code, online, and via CD-ROM.
“Along with a number of other groups, the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief to support the nonprofit. We argued that the state cannot claim a copyright in its law because copyright vests only in the author of a work — in this case, the public — and because giving the state a private property right in the law would violate the public’s First Amendment right of access as well as principles of due process,” aclu.org reports.
The public, it turns out, “are the ultimate authors and owners of the law” in our democracy.
As the ACLU aptly puts it: “Knowing the law is a right, not a privilege.”
Sources: aclu.org, eff.org
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