The Georgia First Amendment Foundation (FAF) hosted the 15th annual Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Banquet Oct. 13 honoring Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for its role in advancing free speech in Georgia at Emory Conference Center’s Silverbell Pavilion.
The banquet was largely centered around the passage of Georgia HB 513, effective July 1, 2016, which deters strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs): lawsuits utilized by deep-pocketed plaintiffs arguing groundless defamation and libel among other allegations to intimidate and burden defendants with high legal costs, according to FAF. HB 513 expanded Georgia’s 1996 anti-SLAPP legislation’s protections of statements related to government bodies and official proceedings to now cover all speech of public concern and include documentaries, films and television shows. The law also requires the losing party to pay attorneys’ fees.
HB 513 was pushed through the Georgia General Assembly with the MPAA’s support and leadership, according to FAF President Shawn McIntosh. The MPAA provided legal assistance and led the coalition of free speech advocates who drafted and lobbied for HB 513’s passage.
FAF also presented the MPAA with the Weltner Freedom of Information Award, an accolade given annually at the banquet to those “who worked to significantly improve freedom of information in Georgia,” according to FAF’s website.
The MPAA seeks to promote strong free speech laws and champion the First Amendment to protect Georgia artists’ rights to portray compelling stories through film, former U.S. Sen. and MPAA Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Chris Dodd said in his acceptance speech for the Weltner Award on behalf of the MPAA.
“Powerful stories need to be seen and heard even if what they say offends some … [Films and television shows have] the power to change lives,” Dodd said.
Georgia is currently tied for third in nationwide film production after California and New York, according to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Dodd credited Atlanta’s “robust and vibrant” film scene for the MPAA’s “enthusiastic support of anti-SLAPP laws [in Georgia],” emphasizing well-known productions filmed in Atlanta, including the film Sully and television show The Walking Dead.
Although the Weltner Award is typically bestowed upon individuals, the MPAA’s crucial contribution to enacting HB 513 justified giving the award to an organization, according to John McCosh, a member of the FAF Board of Directors and director of communications for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
“In reality, without MPAA putting a big shoulder behind the effort, [HB 513] might not have happened,” McCosh said.
Cynthia Counts, a media attorney on the legal team that drafted HB 513 and Emory adjunct professor of communications and media law, reiterated Dodd’s sentiment that films are agents for change and should be granted free speech protections.
“If someone wants to write a documentary on abortion, [he or she] should be able to do it,” Counts said. “Georgia is setting the bar higher [for protecting free speech].”
Weltner, the award’s namesake, was a Georgia senator and later a Georgia Supreme Court chief justice who “championed freedom of information and ethics in state government,” according to FAF’s website.