First Amendment concerns exposed to Georgia’s summer sunshine

The story of a north Georgia journalist jailed after filing an open records request broke on one of the worst possible news days, a Friday leading into the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

Yet despite the distractions of cookouts and fireworks, people paid attention to news that Fannin Focus Publisher Mark Thomason and his attorney had been jailed on felony charges in a judge’s apparent attempt to silence criticism and restrict access to information.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation swiftly decried the criminal charges and warned, “Retaliation for use of the Open Records Act will inhibit every citizen from using it, and reel us back into the Dark Ages.” On July 5, the foundation joined with the Atlanta Press Club, the Georgia Press Association and the Georgia chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists to release a statement demanding charges against Thomason be dropped. Hundreds of Georgia journalists received the emailed statement, and social media posts helped spread word.

REPORTERS FOR FREEDOM CLEANEDThe story attracted attention across the nation and beyond. A day after the joint statement went out, the international Committee to Protect Journalists featured the Fannin County saga at the top of its home page. On July 7, the district attorney who had brought the charges against Thomason filed a motion for dismissal. Her motion included a letter from Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Brenda Weaver, who had pushed for the indictments against the journalist.

It took nearly two weeks, and more pressure from the media and First Amendment advocates, for the charges against Thomason and his lawyer finally to be dropped by a judge on loan to the Appalachian Judicial Circuit. That happened July 18.

A federal grand jury is now investigating the affair, and Weaver has resigned as chair of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which monitors judicial conduct statewide.

The story continues, and journalists and Georgia citizens aren’t losing interest. Open records-based stories have closely documented the tick-tock of events that led to Thomason’s jailing. The court operating account the judge once declared outside the reach of Georgia’s Open Records Act now is thoroughly detailed in news coverage.

The next chapter in the story is still to be written, perhaps centered on findings by the federal grand jury that subpoenaed records. Those presumably include the court operating account records Thomason asked for in the first place.

Hear the latest from Thomason in person at the Atlanta Press Club’s Sept. 12 forum, “Protecting a Journalist’s Rights: A Conversation on National Shield Law.” He will be one of a dozen journalists on hand who’ve been jailed in the course of doing their jobs.

  • This post by John McCosh, GFAF board member