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Open Government
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Payment required to read the law? Supreme Court will decide.

The most important legal challenge in decades to a basic tenet of open government — laws should be available to public to read for free — went before the Supreme Court on Monday.

The justices heard arguments in a dispute over whether Georgia may have copyright protections on its annotated legal code books, which means they're not available to the public without cost. It appears to be the first time in more than a century the court has considered the limits of the "government edicts doctrine," which bars copyrights on statutes and legal decisions.

Open records proponents, civil rights groups and the news media say it's unconstitutional to limit the peoples' access to the law books most widely in use. The Trump administration has taken Georgia's side.


The fight is not over the actual statutes enacted by the General Assembly, which everybody agrees may not be subject to copyright protection. The dispute is over the annotated code, where the texts are accompanied by detailed explanations of legislative history and references to relevant court precedents. These are the essential reference books that lawyers, judges, lawmakers and citizens use every day to understand the meaning of the laws.

The case began when Georgia sued a public record activist, Carl Malamud, to force him to stop publishing the annotated code on his website, public.resource.org.

"If a democracy is based on an informed citizenry and ignorance of the law is no excuse, how can we possibly justify requiring citizens to obtain a license and pay a tax before they read the law and repeat it to their fellow citizens?" he replied.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor last year, saying: "Because they are the authors, the people are the owners of these works, meaning that the works are intrinsically public domain material and, therefore, uncopyrightable."

But Georgia sees it differently, especially because the annotated law books are ultimately published by a private contractor, LexisNexis, and part of the company's deal with the state is that it gets to cover its production costs and make some profit by attaching a copyright and selling the volumes for $404.

And while the annotation process is overseen by a government commission, the decisions are made by the contractor. And the annotations — commentaries, case references and editor's insights — are not themselves the law.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have asked the court to take Georgia's side, on the grounds that without a profit motive and copyright shield no publishers will want to produce the law books.

Those who have filed briefs on the other side include the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Intellectual Property Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which was joined by Gannett Co., the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

"If the First Amendment requires public access to criminal trials so that citizens may oversee and participate in government, then citizens must also have access to the laws that organize their society (and that form the basis of those criminal trials)," the media organizations said.

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The House on Friday passed legislation to restore a provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill would require advance approval of voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. Here President Lyndon Johnson shares one of the pens he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Passage of historic voting rights law takes a partisan turn

In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.

The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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Big Picture

TV stations fight FCC over political ad disclosure

Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.

With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.

This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.

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1952 Eisenhower Answers America

On TV, political ads are regulated – but online, anything goes

Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.

With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.

Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.

Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.

I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.

Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.

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