Brian Pritchchard with captured this image of citizen-journalist Nydia Tisdale being arrested by a Dawson County sheriff’s captain for filming a political rally in August 2014. Tisdale is now standing trial for felony obstruction of an officer and two misdemeanors in Dawson County.

Tisdale’s camera pits free speech against property rights

Citizen-journalist Nydia Tisdale is in the fight of her life.

For most of this decade, Tisdale has been a fixture in Georgia’s civic life, largely a silent fixture. An open government purist, Tisdale attends public meetings, press conferences and various community event and points her video camera at them. Then she puts them on her website and YouTube, largely unedited and without commentary.

That’s all. The soft-spoken, 54-year-old simply honors the openness of the American political process by recording it.

The fact that she has spent this week in a Dawson County courtroom and may now be headed to prison has offended more than a few who know her story.

In August 2014, Tisdale attended a publicly advertised political rally in Dawsonville at a local agro-tourism spot called Burt’s Pumpkin Farm. The rally originally was envisioned as a meet-and-greet for Gov. Nathan Deal, who was running for re-election, but the roster expanded dramatically to include every statewide GOP candidate.

Ads ran in local newspapers and online that all were welcome to the free event. It was exactly the kind of thing that Tisdale lives for, so she was there when then-Senate candidate David Perdue stepped off his bus.

Tisdale wasn’t hiding in the bushes. She was right on the greeting line as the smiling Perdue walked by. Some staffers with the campaign approached Tisdale asking who she was with. Nobody. Just Nydia (rhymes with Lydia) and her camera.

When the speeches began, Tisdale was on the front row, camera in hand, to record Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens say Perdue’s Democratic challenger, Michelle Nunn, made him want to “puke.” Then Hudgens looks right at Tisdale.

“I don’t know why you are videotaping, but yes I said that,” he said.

After that, things got ugly.

Some Republican staffers approached Clint Bearden, a local lawyer who had helped arrange the event, and asked if he would ask the farm’s owner, Johnny Burt, to object Tisdale’s videotaping of the event. Burt, who had known Bearden since the lawyer was a teenager, complied.

“She was filming and she was sitting right in the front, right in the speaker’s face,” Burt testified this week. “It was getting intimidating to the speakers.”

Let this sink in for a moment. An elected official was allegedly intimidated by a camera pointed at him. And where is it written that a politician such as Hudgens has to be comfortable?

Bearden then approached Tisdale and asked her to stop recording. Tisdale, who has said she believed she had the permission of the farm’s owners, declined.

The next person to approach Tisdale was Capt. Tony Wooten of the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office, and he wasn’t taking no for an answer. After a brief conversation, largely inaudible on the video, Wooten grabbed Tisdale and marched her out of event and into another nearby building where he pinned her against a counter with her arm twisted behind her back.

Tisdale was not soft-spoken at this moment. Frightened and probably angry, Tisdale screamed for Wooten to identify himself and protested that she had permission to shoot. When the dust settled, she was charged with felony obstruction of an officer and two misdemeanors. The felony carries a potential five-year prison sentence.

Nydia Tisdale with her camera at the Forsyth County Commission in Cumming in 2011. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Jurors hostile to outsiders

What folks are making of this scene says something about America and the standing of the press in 2017.

In the salons of Atlanta, First Amendment advocates are horrified.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation honored Tisdale with the organization’s Open Government Hero award, noting her “tenacious commitment to transparency in local government.” Newspapers, including this one, editorialized on her behalf.

Kennesaw State University President Sam Olens, who then was state attorney general, was at Burt’s Farm for the rally and spoke out against the arrest in the moment.

“If we stand for anything as a party, what are we afraid of with the lady having a camera, filming us?” Olens asked. “What are we saying here that shouldn’t be on film? What message are we sending? That because it’s private property, they shouldn’t be filming? What is the harm?”

But in Dawsonville, folks see it differently. That was clear during two grueling days of jury selection when local residents saw something less heroic. To some of them, Tisdale is a mouthy troublemaker with no respect for authority and looking for someone to sue.

“I told my wife it sounds like she’s here for a payment,” one prospective juror said.

Another said he was a “strong proponent of property rights” and likely would side with the prosecution if chosen.

“If I was at a meeting I don’t know if I’d like a camera rolling,” said yet another.

In testimony, Burt said he suggested Tisdale not be arrested, but his feeling about her was clear.

“I said, ‘Should we not just put her in her car and send her back to Fulton County where she belongs?’” he said. “She sues everybody anyway.”

Tisdale rejected plea offer

In 2015, Tisdale won a $200,000 judgment from the City of Cumming after the mayor had her ejected from a public meeting there in 2012. It’s a well-known story in neighboring Dawson County.

Tisdale’s story pits the value society puts on open government against sacrosanct views on private property rights and respect for authority against a desire to hold it accountable.

It all means Tisdale is taking a big gamble in Dawsonville this week. She could have walked away virtually scot-free, but chose to fight.

The prosecutor offered to dismiss the felony if she agreed to plead to a criminal trespass misdemeanor. She didn’t even have to plead guilty, Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer said. She could plead no contest, pay a fine and walk away.

Any attorney would tell her to take the deal, which may be why her lawyer, well-known Atlanta criminal defense specialist Bruce Harvey, asked the judge to verbally confirm with Tisdale that she was passing.

“I refused the offer,” she told the judge.

The dice are rolling. How they come up will speak volumes.

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