Georgia DNR board sets limits on social media posts

ATLANTA – The Georgia Board of Natural Resources voted unanimously Tuesday to impose limits on comments posted on its third-party social media websites that critics say violate free-speech rights.

The new Department of Natural Resources (DNR) social media rule allows the agency to remove comments not related to the topic of the posting or that contain profanity.

Court rulings have held that such “limited public forums” do not violate freedom-of-speech protections under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, Kate Iannuzzi, the DNR’s deputy executive counsel, told board members before Tuesday’s vote.

“This isn’t really silencing,” she said. “It’s just effectively communicating with the public. … We’re just keeping up with the time and how folks communicate.”

In other business Tuesday, the board approved the purchase of 909 acres in Paulding County that will be added to the 4,850-acre Paulding/Sheffield Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

The area offers opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking and camping much closer to Atlanta than most of Georgia’s WMAs.

“This is one of the places I go to because I can get there in 40 minutes,” DNR Commissioner Mark Williams said.

The price tag for the property is $2.6 million. The largest chunk of the funding – $1.5 million comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Other contributors include the DNR, the Knobloch Family Foundation, The Nature Conservancy and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Half of all Georgians now fully vaccinated against COVID, officials say

ATLANTA – State health officials said Monday that 50% of all Georgians, or 5,154,793 residents, are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers individuals have been fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of a two-dose series (Moderna or Pfizer) and two weeks after a single-dose vaccine (Johnson & Johnson).

More than 56% of Georgians have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, according to the state Department of Public Health.

“Having 50% of Georgians fully vaccinated is a positive step toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic in the state,” Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Kathleen Toomey said.

“However, COVID-19 continues to spread in Georgia, particularly in areas of low vaccination rates, causing severe illness and death – deaths that are preventable.”

As of last week, all three COVID vaccines – Pfizer, J&J and Moderna – have been given Emergency Use Authorization for booster doses for some individuals. Third doses and booster doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered to nearly 120-thousand Georgians.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation. 

Stone Mountain Park to get new manager

STONE MOUNTAIN – A new company owned by a veteran executive at Stone Mountain was named Monday as the finalist to take over management of the park next summer.

The Stone Mountain Memorial Association’s board voted unanimously to enter into negotiations with Thrive Attraction Management. The new firm’s owner, Michael Dombrowski, has served as the park’s vice president and general manager since 2014.

“We are honored to have been selected to continue the great work of managing Stone Mountain Park for the past several years and to keep in place an experienced group of senior managers and engaged employees,” Dombrowski said Monday.

“We’ll build on our success by … ensuring Stone Mountain Park is a welcoming and inclusive environment for all visitors from Atlanta, the nation and the world.”

The Stone Mountain board has been under pressure since nationwide civil rights protests erupted during the summer of last year to deemphasize Confederate imagery at the park, dominated by a giant mountainside sculpture of Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

The board responded last May by passing resolutions to add historic context to the sculpture with a museum exhibit to be located at the park’s Memorial Hall and move the Confederate flags lining the park’s main walkup trail to the base of the mountain.

Then in August, board members adopted a new logo for the association that leaves out the Confederate symbols contained in the former logo.

While critics of the Confederate imagery at Stone Mountain have called for the carving and other symbols of the Confederacy to be removed altogether, a law the General Assembly passed in 2019 prohibits removing historic monuments from public property.

Subject to a final agreement, Thrive Attractions Management would take over at Stone Mountain next July 31, when the park’s current lease with Herschend Family Entertainment expires.

The new company will partner with Crescent Hotels and Resorts to oversee operations at the Evergreen Resort and Conference Center and the Stone Mountain Inn.

“Crescent has consistently ranked as one of the top five hotel management companies in America,” said Bill Stephens, the association’s CEO.

In other news Monday, the board announced it is releasing a request for proposals for a company with experience in museum exhibition design to develop an interpretive plan for the exhibit at Memorial Hall.

“We want to provide an expanded interpretation of the sculpture as art, the technological achievement it reflects and its relationship to local history,” the RFP states.

“The new exhibit should be thought-provoking and engaging and should entice new visitors to the museum as well as encourage and excite Georgians to revisit it.”

Proposals are due next April, and the board is scheduled to award a contract in June.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.


ACLU: Law that led to legislator’s 2018 arrest at Georgia Capitol unconstitutional

ATLANTA –The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia filed an amicus brief on Monday with the state Supreme Court arguing a state law that led to a legislator’s arrest back in 2018 is unconstitutional. 

The state law under which police made these arrests bans any speech that “may reasonably be expected to prevent or disrupt a session or meeting of the Senate or House of Representatives” as well as any “loud” or “abusive language” in the Capitol building. 

Williams, a Democrat who now represents Atlanta’s 5th Congressional District, filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing the statute violates both the U.S. and Georgia constitutions. However, the federal district court sent the case to the Georgia Supreme Court requesting that it to rule first whether the statute violates the state constitution.   

The ACLU’s amicus brief was filed on behalf on several organizations, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the state NAACP and Planned Parenthood Southeast. 

“Georgians must be able to speak their minds in the state Capitol building, the seat of our democracy,” said Sean Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia. “Our amicus brief asks the Georgia Supreme Court to enforce the robust speech protections of the state constitution and strike down this overbroad criminal statute.”  

Young said while the statute criminalizes the disruption of legislative meetings in the Capitol, it also unconstitutionally criminalizes expressions of speech in the building even when they do not disrupt anything.  

“The highest courts of 10 other states that have similar provisions in their state constitutions have agreed that this language provides greater protections than the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protections,” Young said. 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation. 

Democratic lawmakers hoping for COVID aid deadline extension

ATLANTA – The chairman of the state Senate Interstate Cooperation Committee says she hopes there will be another opportunity for Georgia to apply for aid under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). 

“I would hope to see a second window for applications, because many people may be unable to meet the October 31 deadline,” said state Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta. “My hope is that everyone will be able to get the assistance they need and deserve.” 

James’ committee has been holding public hearings on ARPA and what it means to Georgia and other states. The panel’s last hearing took place on Friday.   

“ARPA started out with applications for assistance online,” James said. “Then so many applications began coming in, we needed a plan or a proposal to accompany them.” 

Georgians initially had 30 days to apply for aid. Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget office extended the deadline from Aug. 31 to the end of this month. Now, James is hoping for another extension.  

“ARPA’s purpose is to deliver $350 billion for eligible state governments to respond to the COVID pandemic and bring back jobs,” James said. 

This past summer, Kemp created three committees to decide how to spend some of the aid. The committees are reviewing the applications to figure out how to use $300 million for broadband infrastructure, $200 million for water and sewer infrastructure and $320 million to address negative economic impacts on the state. 

State Sens. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, and Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson, have chaired the subcommittees under James’ main committee.  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.