Citizen journalist avoids jail time after arrest at GOP rally

A citizen-journalist arrested more than three years ago after filming a Republican rally at a North Georgia pumpkin farm will avoid prison time as long she lives up to terms of her probation, a judge ruled on Monday.

Nydia Tisdale must pay a $1,000 fine and complete 40 hours of community service for her conviction on a single misdemeanor obstruction charge, Judge Martha Christian said. Tisdale was granted first offender status, meaning she won’t have a criminal record if she completes the terms of her sentence.

The high-profile case ensnared some of the state's top GOP figures and had been watched closely by those in the media and their advocates. It was seen as a key test in Georgia of free speech vs. private property rights. And it made Tisdale — a longtime fixture along with her camera at public meetings — a minor celebrity, honored with an open government award.

Tisdale, 54 was acquitted earlier this month of both a felony obstruction charge and a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespassing.

Richard Griffiths, president elect of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, was in the Dawson County courtroom on Monday to watch the sentencing and said he was “pleased with the outcome.”

He said the judge seemed to base her decision on the fact that Tisdale “was not found guilty of the underlying charge of trespassing at a public political rally, albeit on private land.”

But Griffiths said he also worried that the fact that authorities pursued the case at all could have “a chilling effect” on journalists weighing whether to cover some events that should be public.

On Aug. 23, 2014, Tisdale attended a GOP rally at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm in Dawsonville with plans to video speeches from political candidates. She claimed she had permission to do so from one of the farm’s owners.

But after about an hour, Tisdale was removed from the rally by Dawson County Sheriff’s Deputy Tony Wooten. A scuffle ensued but the versions of what happened during that encounter differ.

Tisdale said Wooten didn't identify himself as a law enforcement officer when he hauled her from the event and pinned her forcibly against a counter as he took her into custody, leaving her with bruises.

“I felt like I was being raped with my clothes on,” Tisdale testified.

Wooten disputes that and said Tisdale was only arrested after she refused to obey his instructions. He also said she broke his phone and struck him.

Former Attorney General Sam Olens was among those who testified at Tisdale's trial. Gov. Nathan Deal managed to beat back a subpoena seeking his testimony. Both had been at the rally.

On Monday, prosecutors sought an apology from Tisdale as part of the sentencing. Tisdale’s lawyer, Bruce Harvey, vehemently objected. The judge sided with Tisdale.