Georgia citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale, who last year won a First Amendment award for fighting for her right to record in public, is now facing five years in prison for recording a Republican political gathering in 2014.
She was arraigned Tuesday on charges of criminal trespassing, misdemeanor obstruction of an officer and felony obstruction of an officer.
She pleaded not guilty.
It’s a questionable indictment considering she already won a $200,000 settlement from a 2012 incident where a mayor had her thrown out of a public meeting for recording, but evidently, they believe they can intimidate her.
But Tisdale is not intimidated and specifically asked for a “formal arraignment,” where the formal charges are read aloud in court rather than just entering a plea and signing a piece of paper acknowledging the charges against her.
The media had driven an hour just to cover the arraignment, which are generally anti-climatic and rarely a draw for the media.
“For news media to come from Atlanta to Dawsonville …. I wanted everyone to hear what the charges are,” she told PINAC.
“Because, yes, they are ridiculous.”
The political event where she was arrested on August 23, 2014 was attended by the governor, attorney general and several other prominent Republican movers and shakers from Georgia.
It was held on Burt’s Pumpkin Farm; private property that is open to the public all year-round and was open to the public for this specific event.
“The Facebook page showed the event accepted 75 invitations,” she told PINAC.
Tisdale had even been granted permission to record by Kathy Burt, who owns the farm along with her husband, Johnny.
And many in the audience were recording that day, but she was the only one singled out for recording.
It all started when she was sitting in the same front row as Georgia Governor Nathan Deal when state insurance commissioner Ralph Hudgens made some off-the-cuff remarks about a democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.
“I don’t know why you’re videotaping,” Hudgens then said to her.
Before she knew it, she was asked by a man named Mack Burgess to stop recording or leave. Then another man named Clint Bearden sat next to her and said the same thing. He stated we have a no-recording policy, even though there were others in the audience recording.
Tisdale said she didn’t know who the men were because they provided no names and gave no authoritative identities.
Tisdale refused to stop recording and refused to leave because she had already obtained permission to record from Kathy Burt, who is also owner of Burt’s Pumpkin Farm, after she arrived at the event.
That’s when a casually dressed man who wouldn’t identify himself forcibly marched her into the barn.
“He had his groin pressed against my buttocks,” she said.
Tisdale said she didn’t even know the man was a deputy because he didn’t have an identifying badge that she could see or anything else that indicated to her he was an officer.
“I turned my camera backwards to try to identify the man attacking me. Anyone can buy a polo shirt with embroidering on it. I never saw a badge on him. He had a logo on his shirt, but no badge. It was . . . a logo with a star embroidered on it.”
And although he did have a sidearm, she stated that would be common at a Republican function since Georgia recently passed open carry legislation.
She also said, “I kept my camera rolling, next to his firearm on his belt loop and later saw he had a badge on his hip in his waistband. But I didn’t see it then.”
In the video, Tisdale can be heard asking the officer, “What is your name sir? What is your name, sir?”
His name was Dawson County Sheriff’s Captain Tony Wooten and he was suspended for two days after the incident. But after an investigation, he was later reinstated to full-duty.
He is now running for sheriff and promotes himself as a man of God who is “dedicated to the community.”
You can the be the judge of that by watching the videos below.
After she had been thrown out, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens stated the following to the audience:
“Let me be possibly politically incorrect here a second. If we stand for anything as a party, what are we afraid of with the lady having a camera, filming us? What are we saying here that shouldn’t be on film? What message are we sending? That because it’s private property they shouldn’t be filming? What is the harm?” The harm that occurs post-this is far greater than her filming us. What are we hiding? If we are telling you why we are running and what we stand for . . . what are we hiding? There is no reason for that. That is not right. It is private property. The property owner has the right to not have the person there. Who’s the winner in the long run? Not a good move.”
Earlier that day, Olens had posed in a photo with Tisdale, so he obviously is not afraid of cameras. He was also the one who filed a suit on her behalf in the 2012 case, which had been decided two days earlier.
In that case, the mayor of Cumming threw Tisdale from a city council meeting for recording the meeting, which you can see in the third video below.
Olens took her side, representing Tisdale in a lawsuit filed on her behalf over open meeting violations by Cumming Mayor Henry Ford Gravitt.
That lawsuit ended with a $12,000 fine against the city.
She also filed her own lawsuit, resulted in a $200,000 settlement last year and written assurances that city policies would allow public filming of all future meetings.
Tisdale told PINAC she thinks recording public officials is important so people know who they’re voting for and what they’re all about and to get people out to vote.
She noted that this week is Sunshine Week. Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote open dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
“It’s also the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act. While we’re celebrating transparency, I’m being prosecuted for it,” she said.
Transparency is one of Tisdale’s motives behind recording events where elected representatives speak about political topics.
“I’m trying to get people out to the polls. My goal is to remind people to get out to the polls,” she said.
PINAC asked Tisdale how she felt about being made a criminal for documenting what political representatives say at gatherings?
“It’s outrageous. It’s unconscionable. Beyond belief that citizens that want to share what their elected officials and candidates are saying on the campaign trail, to get out voters, to tell people at work about these candidate’s campaigns are being prosecuted for sharing their ideas with voters . . . What better way to do that than in a video? I can’t misquote them in a video.”
“It’s very strange. There are videos all over the internet where people are taking photos, taking pictures with their kids and families, making memories and nobody has been indicted for recording those at Burt’s Pumpkin Farms,” she said.
The motive for the criminal charges by the state pose more questions when you consider what else Tisdale told PINAC ” I filmed an almost identical rally in my town, in Roswell. I filmed almost all the same people here, and there was no objection.”
Bruce Harvey, Tisdale’s attorney, who is representing her against the criminal charges, pro bono, was not available for comment.
We tend to agree with Attorney General Olens. If filming a gathering where political representatives are talking about the ideas they represent is a crime, then we’ve got problems.
We’ve also got some unanswered questions.
What are they hiding? And why are we wasting tax dollars prosecuting a citizen journalist who posts youtube videos of politicians online?
Most importantly, why aren’t we embracing transparency instead of prosecuting it?
Below are three videos; the first a shortened video of her 2014 arrest for which she is now facing five years in prison.
The second the full, unedited video. The third the 2010 incident where she was thrown out of a meeting, resulting in a $200,000 settlement.