The next day she was in a roomful of judges. This time she was an invited guest from judges who solicited her opinion as they attempt a rewrite of the judicial policy for cameras and other recording devices in courtrooms across the state.
Such is the life of a zealot.
For years, the Roswell-based citizen journalist has pushed her ever-present video camera toward government officials and political personalities. And sometimes they push back.
Tisdale’s conviction came from the struggle she put up when she was bodily removed from a GOP campaign rally in 2014 at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm. It was in the heat of an election year and staffers for the Republican Party’s slate of candidates were concerned about Democratic Party “trackers.”
Trackers follow a candidate around, recording his or her every utterance in hopes of capturing something the other side can use against them. Tisdale isn’t one of those people. She’s more like a sentient surveillance camera holding a copy of the state’s open meetings laws.
She goes to meetings and public events, records them, and puts them on her website. Why? Education, she said.
“My measure of success would be to have a greater voter turnout overall,” she said. “It’s not a particular candidate or party. I want the citizens to know about the democratic process.”
Tisdale has been tossed from meetings before. Two years earlier, the mayor of Cumming had police remove her and her camera from a public meeting. Former Attorney General Sam Olens slapped the city and mayor with a $12,000 fine for his “egregious” violation of the law. Tisdale followed up with her own civil suit, which Cumming settled for $200,000.
That settlement fed a narrative in some parts that Tisdale was intentionally provoking politicians by aggressively — um — standing there, then soaking them in court when she is removed. I’ve heard from people in Forsyth and Dawson counties who bemoan the loss of taxpayer money to this outside agitator.
‘I was doing absolutely nothing wrong’
It’s ridiculous on many fronts, beginning with the idea that she profited from the incident.
“Most of it went to legal fees. It wasn’t a windfall for me,” she said.
Also, it wasn’t taxpayer money. The city’s insurance company negotiated and paid the claim, which might have been bigger had she taken the money in a sealed settlement. But she wanted the agreement public, she said.
She’s had a couple more scrapes but the Burt’s Farm incident was the first time she was criminally charged and her conviction has some advocates of press freedoms shaking their heads. She was sentenced to a year of probation, a $1,000 fine and community service.
Tisdale says she will appeal. She can’t back down, she said. Not now.
“I was doing absolutely nothing wrong. I was sitting silently holding a video camera. I was recording a political speech,” she said. “I was doing what the governor of Georgia told everyone to do when he spoke at the Roswell rally three weeks before, which was tell everybody about this election. I do that with my video camera.”
She’s paying a literal price for continuing to fight. Although her lawyers have offered their services for free, she said other costs associated with her defense have run around $50,000.
There’s an emotional price too. Although her conviction is just a misdemeanor, she’s still a convicted criminal.
“I’m on probation,” she said. “It’s pretty incredible.”
A double standard
There are differences between people like me and people like Tisdale. For one, there is no chance I would have been arrested at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm.
Had I been there as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, political staffers — imagining the next day’s headline — never would have kicked me out.
If they had, I would’ve protested, but my two decades of experience would have served me better than Tisdale’s self-taught activism. Rather than allow myself to be dragged by a local deputy, my inclination would be to get in my car and call my editor, who likely would call the AJC’s legal team.
While I was waiting, I would have sent a dozen or so emails to press officers for the candidates asking for statements on my ejection and solicited responses from the opposition party.
I do this for a living. For Tisdale, it’s a cause, not a career. But I get it.
It’s happened to me
More than two decades ago, I was a reporter for a small daily newspaper in west Georgia assigned to cover city meetings in tiny Mt. Zion, Ga. The officials of Mt. Zion were unaccustomed to having regular media scrutiny and it was uncomfortable.
Vividly, I recall a meeting where I complained that the mayor and city council had taken up significant city business while producing (once again) a blank council agenda. I was the only one who bothered to show up for the meeting and I clearly was an irritant to the long-serving mayor.
That mayor told me that if I didn’t like the way he did business, he could adjourn the meeting and reconvene once I was gone. Eventually I did leave, escorted to the city limits by the police chief.
I’ve run into this time and again where politicians’ discomfort with a real-time audit of their performance results in their violation of the letter or spirit of open government laws.
Sometimes they do it because they are hiding something. Other times it’s simply because they feel entitled. Regardless, it’s dangerous in ways large and small and rarely are they held to account. Rarely do such squabbles end up in print.
Professional journalists hate being part of a story. Usually when blocked from entering a public meeting, reporters find workarounds and cover the original story as best they can, leaving it to editors and media lawyers to deal with the problem later. At best, they tweet about it.
After I left Mt. Zion, I wrote about what happened at the meeting, rather than what happened to me. The job comes first, as it should, but that lets politicians off the hook.
Tisdale has her own self-appointed role and she’s not done with it yet.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.