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Ga. citizen journalist faces possible jail time


Two years ago, Nydia Tisdale aimed her video camera at some of the state’s top political figures at a Republican rally in Dawsonville. Now, as a result, she’s fighting felony charges that could send her to prison for up to five years.

On Aug. 23, 2014, police charged Tisdale with obstructing an officer after a Dawson County sheriff’s deputy grabbed her, twisted her arm behind her and “frog marched” her out of a Republican candidate rally that had been otherwise open to the public. The felony charge carries a potential five-year prison sentence.

Tisdale is a citizen journalist who for years has filmed politicians in public forums from small council chambers to public events featuring Gov. Nathan Deal and other statewide officials. She also had been tossed from public forums before, so Tisdale kept the camera rolling as Capt. Tony Wooten pulled her from the forum.

The rally was staged at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm, a local tourist stop. Wooten marched the screaming Tisdale from the rally into a nearby barn.

“What is your name, sir? Let go of me,” Tisdale said in the recording which was played, frame-by-frame, in Dawson County Superior Court this week during a pretrial hearing.

Wooten never identifies himself on Tisdale’s video although prosecutors claim she had to have known he was a cop. After she had been removed from the rally, Wooten told Tisdale she can find his name on the warrant for her arrest.

“I’ve been real nice. Now you are going to jail,” Wooten told Tisdale, a slight, middle-aged woman who looks more like a school librarian more than a menace to the state’s political elite.

The arrest put free press advocates on high alert, but even the most jaded among us find it hard to believe she is actually being prosecuted.

“The idea that criminal charges can stem from free speech and First Amendment activity seems to undermine the entire premise on which our country was founded,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, which last year gave Tisdale its annual Open Government Hero Award.

“Free speech and free press rights are critical to an open community, and it is problematic on many levels when unjustified criminal charges are the response,” Manheimer said.

Tisdale’s passion is transparency

In an era of shrinking journalistic resources, Tisdale is an important piece in holding the powerful accountable.

For nearly two decades, newspapers and other professional news gathering organizations have tried to figure out the changing economics foisted upon us by the internet. Virtually every organization has adjusted by getting smaller, and that has had an effect on ground-level reporting.

There are fewer beat reporters to cover meetings of school boards, zoning boards and political rallies in pumpkin patches.

In 2000, about 56,400 people were employed in newspaper newsrooms around the country, according to the journalism non-profit Poynter Institute. By 2014, that number dropped to 32,900. More than 100 daily newspapers have closed their doors since 2004.

Into that vacuum have stepped people like Tisdale. She puts her videos on her YouTube channel, largely unedited and without commentary. She doesn’t ask questions; she doesn’t call herself a reporter.

Instead, she’s an unblinking eye staring at Roswell City Council meetings or a state senator’s town hall meeting. It’s a service, and one she provides solely to feed her passion for government transparency.

When Tisdale arrived to shoot the Dawsonville political rally, her plan was to record a stump speech from Attorney General Sam Olens. Olens was apparently excited to meet her because he had good news.

Olens told Tisdale that a judge had ruled the City of Cumming had violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when they had forcibly ejected Tisdale from a City Council meeting in 2012. The city was ordered to pay a $12,000 fine, the largest allowed by state law. (Tisdale would later get a much larger settlement in civil court.)

Olens even posed for a picture with Tisdale before the speeches began. Both of them are smiling.

Stop filming order came from party staffers

One of the early speakers was Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, who started by talking about a debate he had seen between U.S. Senate candidates David Perdue and Michelle Nunn.

“I’m not going to get into that race, but I was at the …” Hudgens began. It was an unexpected laugh line, drawing giggles from those I suppose knew well the commissioner’s sharp and sometimes loose tongue.

“I thought I was going to absolutely puke listening to her,” Hudgens said of the Democrat Nunn’s performance. Then he motions to Tisdale’s camera. “I don’t know why you are videotaping, but yes I said that.”

What Tisdale couldn’t have known was that before the start of the rally, state Republican Party officials had asked a “tracker” to leave. A tracker is political lingo for someone paid by an opponent to follow a candidate around and record their speeches, waiting for gaffs that can be used in later ads.

The tracker left willingly, but following Hudgens comment, staffers started trying to figure out who was the lady with the camera in the front row. The staffers got with Clint Bearden, a north Georgia attorney and Republican stalwart who had been asked by Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign to set up the event, and asked Bearden to get the owner of the property to say filming wasn’t allowed.

“Mr. Burt could care less about people filming,” Bearden told me. “Outside of the request (from GOP staffers), I don’t think he’d care at all.”

Hudgens’ “puke” comment and concern from staffers started the ball rolling. Tisdale was approached, and having just prevailed in her case against the City of Cumming, she said she asked to see a policy forbidding filming. A few minutes later, she was being hauled out and arrested.

Organizers filled with regret

Bearden said he regrets the whole affair. He said it has soured him on politics ever since.

“It would’ve been nice if people had taken a moment to find out who she is,” he said. “I don’t think that anybody has a problem — or should have a problem — with people videoing political events.”

Once he got the mic, Olens protested Tisdale’s removal. “What are we saying here that shouldn’t be on film?” he said.

Linda Clary Umburger, then chairwoman of the Dawson County Republican Party, followed Wooten and Tisdale into the barn to voice her objection.

“I am sorry that people are treating you this way. This is wrong,” she said in Tisdale’s shaky video.

Reached by telephone, Umburger said she still feels that way and she blames herself for not taking a stronger stand in the moment.

“Out of fear and shock, I left Nydia in a room with men. As a woman I should have stayed there and I didn’t,” she said.

As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.

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