By September, officials in Statham, Ga. decided they were fed up dealing with Catherine Corkren.
For more than 18 months, Corkren drove from her southwest Atlanta home to attend every city council meeting in the hamlet that sits about 15 miles west of Athens. She was a vocal participant, often challenging council members on procedures. This year alone, she filed by the Statham city clerk’s estimate close to 100 open records requests for documents regarding the city’s budget, the police department and general policy protocols. She regularly criticized the city and its officials on social media.
“I did ask for a lot,” said Corkren.
Where the mayor, police chief, city attorney, council members and administrative staff saw a trouble-making “outsider,” as one council member deemed her, Corkren saw herself as someone on a mission. Her former partner had been involved in a protracted legal battle and civil rights lawsuit with the City of Statham over a 2015 traffic stop. After her former partner died, Corkren saw it as her duty to continue the fight.
It has set up a unique First Amendment challenge in Georgia, one that asks how far a municipal government can go in addressing a citizen it views as a persistent gadfly.
Corkren’s battle reached a fever pitch in September when the city council voted to ban her not only from attending city council meetings, but from setting foot on any city-owned property within its 3.5 square miles. The duration of the ban: the rest of her life.
The council’s action, while not unheard of, almost never happens without charges being filed against a person accused of committing a crime, legal experts say.
Cynthia Counts, an Atlanta First Amendment attorney who is not involved in the case, said the move coud violate the Constitution.
“Citizens have the right to express their subjective viewpoints, good or bad,” Counts said. “If a city banned a person from a public meeting based upon a disagreement with a person’s criticisms that clearly would violate the First Amendment.”
Corkren, 47, hasn’t been officially charged with any offenses in Statham. Now, she has filed her own lawsuit against the city, saying it has trampled on her free speech rights. The case is scheduled for a preliminary hearing in U.S. Northern District Court in Gainesville in a couple of weeks. And Corkren’s case, while unusual, isn’t unique in Statham.
Sondra Moore and Tony McDaniel initiated similar lawsuit after the city earlier this year banned the two from all city property “indefinitely” after they were accused of and arrested for trespassing in a city park.
“It seems like the garden variety drama you see in any city or county, but they are taking aggressive, illegal action to suppress it,” said Zach Greenamyre, attorney for Corkren, Moore and McDaniel. “This is so far beyond the pale.”
Through its attorney, Thomas Mitchell, the town has declined to comment on any of the cases, citing pending litigation. Mitchell is named in the suit brought by Moore and McDaniel.
In the absence of official comments, documents and interviews with Corkren, Moore and others paint an almost gothic portrait of how a small town operates. At the center are Statham Mayor Robert Bridges, who has held office for nearly 20 years, and a police force that has been sued for multiple alleged civil rights violations regarding traffic stops.
A traffic stop. An arrest. A death
This chapter began in August 2015 when Corkren’s former partner, Kelly Pickens, was stopped by then-Statham Police Officer Marc Lofton on her way from an antiques store. In the incident report, Lofton wrote that Pickens didn’t have a license plate on her SUV and was driving above the 25-mph speed limit. Pickens had just purchased the car and had paperwork proving she was in the legal period before she had to display a new license plate. She said she wasn’t speeding.
But Lofton also did something he had begun to do regularly since joining the Statham police force in June 2015. He asked Pickens if she was on any medication. Pickens, according to an affidavit from her doctor, was on medication for “major depression” and anxiety, but saidthe drugs prescribed to treat the conditions shouldn’t impair her ability to drive. Pickens, according to the incident report, disclosed that she was on medication at which point Lofton gave her a battery of tests to determine her sobriety. In the afternoon sun, Pickens grew frustrated, uttered an expletive and allegedly called Lofton a “jackass.” He arrested her for disorderly conduct, driving too fast for conditions and DUI-drugs less safe.
The charges were subsequently dropped. But while fighting them, Pickens and Corkren discovered that Lofton had been making a string of similar arrests in Statham. In a six-month period after he was hired, Lofton made 63 such arrests, according to the Barrow News-Journal. Residents and people charged with such offenses accused the department of policing for profit. According to municipal records, the city’s 2013 budget projected $71,000 in revenue from fines. By 2015, that projection had risen to $250,000.
“I will not apologize for directing my department to aggressively enforce impaired driving and I will not apologize for my officers doing it,” Police Chief Allan Johnston told the News-Journal. “I could care less of what such enforcement brings into the budget.”
In the end, many of the cases involving Lofton were dismissed. The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia wrote a letter to the Piedmont Judicial Circuit District Attorney saying Lofton didn’t “have the training required to regularly make effective DUI cases involving prescription drugs.” Lofton resigned in June 2017. He was hired and quickly fired by the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office once it learned of the Statham cases.
Pickens and Corkren began attending Statham city council meetings where they were often joined by others calling themselves Concerned Citizens of Statham. Pickens sued Lofton, Johnston and the city for a violation of her First Amendment rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But she died at the end of last year before the case could be heard. It is being pursued by her estate.
“Not face any consequences”
Corkren, who works as an antiques dealer, began attending council meetings and filing open records requests in earnest. She asked for arrest records. She asked for video tapes of council meetings. She asked for financial records. She also began criticizing the city attorney, Mitchell, both online and in council meetings. When records weren’t produced fast enough in accordance with the state’s open records law, Corkren would deluge the city clerk’s office and the police department with emails demanding their prompt retrieval. When she went to pick up documents she would sometimes tape the exchanges on her phone. Asked why she wanted so many documents, Corkren said she was trying to ferret out possible corruption. It went on for months.
“There are officers who have hurt people and continue to move onto another job and not face any consequences,” Corkren said.
But those in city hall began to feel as though she was becoming a threat. In August she was escorted out of a city council meeting by police. In a letter Mitchell sent to Corkren on Sept. 1, he said her behavior had become, “belligerent, intimidating, even threatening.” And in a memo two weeks later to Bridges about an incident involving Corkren and an in-person open records request she made at the Barrow County Sheriff’s office, Mitchell said her behavior “may not have risen to the level of criminal activity,” but had escalated.. On Sept. 13, the council voted unanimously to ban Corkren from all city property for life. As part of its justification, the city had an affidavit from the city clerk, saying that among other things, she felt professionally and personally threatened by the tone of Corkren’s open records request emails because Corkren used all capital letters and red font.
“If Ms. Corkren had made a threat, the city could probably ban and even arrest her,” said First Amendment attorney Counts. “Yet, the city attorney used speculative language claiming that Ms. Corkren was potentially capable of threatening or harming an employee. It appears the action was based on speculation and potentially is just a pretext for banning a person who expressed opinions the City disliked.”
A plan to return
The council had taken a similar action against Moore and her friend Tony McDaniel, earlier in the year. The two were trying to take water samples in a local public park, as part of a long-running complaint by residents about the city’s water quality. They were charged with trespassing and eventually banned from city properties.
While Moore and McDaniel were banned after trespass charges, that was not the case with Corkren. Which makes her case all the more egregious, said Gerry Weber, another First Amendment attorney representing the three.
“It’s the heart of the First Amendment we’re talking about here,” Weber said. “In every city or county there are citizens that go to every meeting and make their concerns known and part of government officials’ jobs is to her citizens complaints and act on them but not to retaliate and that’s what seems to have happened here.”
For her part, Corkren said she’s hopeful her lawsuit against the city will be resolved in her favor.
“At this point, I would definitely be going back,” she said.
In fact, she hasn’t waited for the suit to move forward. Two weeks ago, she stood across the street from Statham City Hall and gave an interview to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She made sure to stand on private property. And as she spoke, Bridges crossed the street, barely looking her way and entered the town barbershop.
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