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.

  • This post by John McCosh, GFAF board member

Open government and media groups commend move to dismiss charges against Fannin County journalist jailed for requesting public records

ATLANTA—July 7, 2016—A move to dismiss charges against a Fannin County newspaper publisher jailed after requesting public records was the right action for officials to take, say a group of Georgia government transparency and media organizations that on July 5 had demanded withdrawal of the charges.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, Atlanta Press Club and Georgia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists commend Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney Alison Sosebee’s July 7 request for dismissal of charges against Mark Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus in Blue Ridge. Thomason was arrested on June 24 and charged with attempted identity fraud, identity fraud and making a false statement as part of his open records request for copies of certain checks documenting spending from judicial operating accounts.

Sosebee’s motion for dismissal included a letter from Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Brenda Weaver, who was named on one of the accounts included in Thomason’s open records requests and had pushed for the indictments against the journalist. In the letter, dated July 6, Weaver acknowledged that protecting citizens’ rights to report on perceived wrongs is important to “the integrity of our system of government.”

“As a citizen and certainly as a Judge, I in no way want to diminish or infringe upon the First Amendment Rights we have under the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of Georgia,” Weaver wrote.

Weaver’s acknowledgement and the district attorney’s request for dismissal of charges are victories for government transparency and the exercise of First Amendment rights for all Georgia citizens.

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Contact:

Hollie Manheimer, Executive Director

Georgia First Amendment Foundation

@GA1stAmendFound

404-759-3646

gfaf@mindspring.com

Ga. open government and media groups: Drop charges against N. Ga. journalist jailed for open records request

Charges should be dropped against a Fannin County newspaper publisher jailed after requesting public records, say a group of government transparency and media organizations in Georgia.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, Atlanta Press Club, Georgia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and Georgia Press Association jointly call for the dismissal of charges against Mark Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus in Blue Ridge. Thomason was arrested on June 24 and charged with attempted identity fraud, identity fraud and making a false statement as part of his open records request for copies of certain checks documenting spending from judicial operating accounts.

Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Brenda Weaver, who pushed for the indictments against the journalist, is named on one of the accounts included in open records requests filed by Thomason and his lawyer. Weaver told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she was concerned Thomason and his lawyer would use the banking information on the checks to commit fraud.

Nothing in the factual background of this dispute raises the slightest suspicion that Thomason and his lawyer sought the bank records for any fraudulent purpose. It is apparent that they were seeking the records to determine how judicial operating funds had been used.

The charge of making a false statement also is not justifiable under Georgia law. The open records request said that some checks “appear to have not been deposited but cashed illegally.” That wording formed the basis for the false statement charge. But the wording is a statement of opinion — not a false statement.

Judge Weaver told the Journal-Constitution that she “doesn’t react well” when her honesty is questioned. Her poor reaction is evident in the case against the journalist and his lawyer. It is absolutely inappropriate to use criminal charges to try to silence a critic. This case goes against the spirit and purpose of the state’s open records laws and is an affront to the exercise of First Amendment rights.

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Contact: Hollie Manheimer, Executive Director

404-759-3646

gfaf dot mindspring.com