Nydia Tisdale, who was removed from a 2014 political rally in Dawson County, is charged with resisting arrest and obstructing a sheriff's deputy.

Citizen journalist trial: Top Republicans testify, criticize arrest

The former chairman of the Dawson County Republican Party testified Thursday that she “was mortified” as she watched a citizen journalist’s arrest during a 2014 GOP rally.

“It was shocking,” Linda Umberger said. “And I can’t believe no one else has a problem with this.”

Umberger and several top Georgia Republicans took the stand Thursday to describe witnessing the arrest of Nydia Tisdale.

Nydia Tisdale sits with her lawyers on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, during her trial at the Dawson Superior Court. 
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Umberger testified that she watched as Tisdale was forcibly removed from her seat during the rally at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm. Tisdale was videotaping the event when she was approached by then-Dawson County Sheriff’s Capt. Tony Wooten, who asked her to leave. When Tisdale did not immediately stop filming, Wooten grabbed her, escorted her out with help from attorney Clint Bearden, and arrested her for felony obstruction of an officer and two misdemeanors.

Umberger said Thursday that Tisdale was singled out, and that a man with an audio recorder was not asked to leave. As Wooten led Tisdale out of the rally, Umberger followed them into a store on the property.

“Identify yourself!” Tisdale said to Wooten, according to Umberger. “Identify yourself!”

Once inside the store, Tisdale was placed face down, bent over a counter, Umberger said.

“Tony was pressed up against her, holding her down,” she said.

Umberger said the incident was life-changing for her, and could have been handled differently, such as by asking for recording devices to be shut off.

“I just want to make sure this never happens to another woman, let alone another person,” she said.

Governor Deal won’t be testifying

Several top Republican state leaders who attended the rally took the witness stand Thursday, but Gov. Nathan Deal won’t take the stand after all, a judge ruled.

Deal was among those seated nearest Tisdale when she was removed from the rally. Defense attorneys said they wanted him to testify about what he witnessed.

Judge Martha Christian agreed with Tisdale’s lawyers that Deal was a material witness to the incident, but ultimately sided with the state to quash the subpoena because of how it was served.

Deal’s executive legal assistant accepted the subpoena on his behalf. Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer said that’s fine — if Deal was being subpoenaed in his official capacity. But the defense was asking him to testify as an eyewitness.

“He wasn’t doing anything for the state of Georgia” at the rally, Greer said.

Top Republicans: Being videoed not a problem

On Thursday afternoon, Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, and former attorney general and current Kennesaw State University president Sam Olens took the stand. Only Olens knew Tisdale prior to the 2014 rally.

Hudgens, Butler and Olens all testified that they weren’t bothered by Tisdale’s video camera.

“In politics, you pretty much assume someone is recording you all the time,” Butler said.

The labor commissioner testified that while he was seated during the rally awaiting his turn to speak, someone behind him told him Tisdale was being removed for videotaping speeches. Butler testified that as he spoke to the crowd, he saw Tisdale being removed. He later found Tisdale and spoke with her briefly.

Butler said he told her that if she ever wanted to record him “at any time in the future, she was welcome to do so.”

Sam Olens, president of Kennesaw State University and former Georgia attorney general, testifies Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, at the trial of citizen-journalist Nydia Tisdale in Dawson Superior Court. 
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Olens said those in public office are “foolish” not to assume they are being recorded. Olens testified he watched as Tisdale was held down to be handcuffed and heard her cry out.

“That was a shriek that came from a lot of pain,” Olens said.

If convicted, Tisdale faces up to five years in prison. Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer said Tisdale was offered a deal to plead to misdemeanor criminal trespass, but she turned it down, opting instead to take the case to trial.

For years, Tisdale has videotaped public meetings and uploaded them to YouTube and her personal website, usually without editing or commentary. In 2012, Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt had her removed from a local intergovernmental meeting, prompting a federal lawsuit. Tisdale sued in federal court, winning a $200,000 judgment against the city.

In 2015, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation honored Tisdale with its Open Government Hero award.

The trial is expected to continue Friday morning.

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