SPJ Georgia media conference highlights judge’s abuse of power after open records request

SPJ Georgia, First Amendment foundation and others credited with jailed publisher’s release

By Julius Suber, SPJ Georgia Board Member

Journalists hung on every word of the panel discussion, which included Fannin Focus Publisher Mark Thomason, who tried doggedly to get information on a story he believed could be authenticated or not by information obtained from an open records request.

Thomason, centered in the above picture flanked by Kennesaw State University Professor Carolyn Carlson, and Dan Whisenhunt, president-elect of SPJ Georgia, played pivotal roles assuaging and eventually righting Thomason’s situation. The Superior Court Judge of Georgia’s Appalachian Judicial Circuit overreached her authority to thwart Thomason’s simple request for the court reporter’s transcripts and audio recordings of a bond revocation hearing. Court officials resistance of, “nothing to see or hear here” stonewalling, backed by the superior court judge snowballed (news stories, libel suits, additional open-records requests)… and it all landed squarely on top of this North Georgia “old school politics” community of Blue Ridge located in the Smoky Mountains, right as the state intersects Tennessee and North Carolina, where, yes sir, yes ma’am, everyone knows each other’s history.

Thomason was born and raised in the region he covered, to include Fannin, Gilbert and Pickens counties, but his investigative reporting style particularly annoyed the superior court judge for the area and her allies, who convinced the prosecutor to jail Thomason and his attorney on felony charges that stemmed from an open-records request. In the panel, Thomason described his arrest:

I got a call from the local sheriff’s department that the deputy said he had some paperwork I needed to sign, didn’t give me any specifics, so I agreed to meet him. I was about fifteen minutes away from downtown Blue Ridge. I said would be on my way. I would call when I was five minutes out…So when I came into Blue Ridge (Interstate 515), it was like a manhunt, the sheriff had the entire highway locked down; traffic was stopped in both directions. Soon as they saw the truck, I was escorted up to the sheriff, he had his vehicle parked cross-ways, across, the interstate and proceeded to tell me I had three felony warrants for my arrest…and was taken to jail.

That orchestrated snafu, that bombshell would be heard by journalists and first amendment advocates across Georgia and across the nation.  A call to arms was almost immediate once the story broke in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC).

Dr. Carlson, an SPJ board member and founding member of the Georgia First Amendment Organization, opened the hour long session:

I had read Rhonda Cooks story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about Mark Thomason getting arrested for an open records request. I knew this was really unusual. I had been a member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation Board of Directors since its beginning, in the early 90’s and of course my involvement with SPJ and I had never heard of that happening, ever, to anybody. So I thought this is Bizarre. The more I thought about, I thought, I’m going to let everybody know about this situation because this is crazy.

Professor Carlson alerted the leadership of the National Freedom of Information Committee, National Freedom of Information Coalitions, and SPJ Georgia Board of Directors, and communicated with the SPJ Legal Defense Fund Committee. It’s worthy to note that all of the feedback Carlson received agreed with her assessment was “this is crazy.”

If there ever was a black and white First Amendment issue to be fixed, the arrest was it. Consider the Georgia First Amendment Foundation is comprised of the state’s top 25 lawyers with expertise in First Amendment issues, and they usually get involved in cases long after the event, when ready to file amicus briefs on their appeals. But this issue Carlson told the audience foundation was so outraged they changed protocol:

This is the first time in 25 years that we got involved in the beginning of a situation… On a case like this one in the first two days of my initial email there were about 30 and 40 emails that went back and forth involving most of lawyers on the board… They were sending me emails with suggestions, things you could do…One of the top First Amendment attorneys in the whole state, David Hudson who is the attorney for the Georgia Press Association wrote a great assessment of his (Mark Thomason’s) indictment… point by point breakdown of why the indictment was absolutely ridiculous; which was very useful to us and SPJ Georgia.

SPJ Georgia’s Dan Whisenhunt took the lead, after being engaged by SPJ Georgia President Ellen Eldridge, to make sure that Thomason had support from the journalism community and Georgia and First Amendment Georgia co-signed many of news releases and statements that were generated. Whisenhunt praised the Thomason’s Fannin Focus publication, and also said he is not surprised that some feathers in the Northern Georgia Community have gotten ruffled by the newspaper, but it is unheard of for anyone being arrested for an open records request:

Thomason did what anyone does when looking for information. I guess a lot of people in Blue Ridge Mountain have a beef with him one day or the other because Thomason tells the truth. If you ever picked up the Fannin Focus it’s a very Blue Collar paper that isn’t afraid to throw a punch every once and awhile, very old school. You don’t see papers do that much anymore.

SPJ Georgia turned up the heat and filed a complaint ‘alleging possible violations of Georgia’s judicial code of conduct with the Georgia Judicial Qualification Commission (JQC), the state’s “watchdog” to ensure public access to the court system. The same judge was the chair of the seven-member JQC at the time. SPJ Georgia asked that she recuse herself from all activity concerned with the complaint.  She resigned from the JQC.

The pressure brought by SPJ Georgia, Georgia First Amendment Foundation, and journalists was real, that’s the take-away offered by Carlson:

I would say that in 48 hours of Rhonda Cook’s initial story, there was not a single First Amendment advocate in the country who wasn’t aware of this situation. There were stories being written not only in Georgia but all over the country about what was going on with Mark Thomason, who was probably a little stunned by the attention.

All charges were dropped against Mark Thomason and his Attorney Russell Stookey, who was jailed on that fateful day. Thomason’s open record requests were granted.  But Carlson warned “it’s not over.”  The news never stops!


One Comment Add yours

  1. Ralph Garner says:

    Rhonda Cook’s initial report on the deplorable arrest and jailing of Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason and his attorney, Russell Stookey, is journalism at its best. She captured in short order the heart of the story and — with a MIGHTY assist from the Society of Professsional Journalists/Georgia and support from the GA First Amendment Foundation — turned this incident into a cause celebre.
    I was not aware of the extent of our county sheriff Dane Kirby’s hateful exhibition when effecting Thomason’s arrest. I daresay he and Judge Weaver were aware of Thomason’s revealing investigative reports — pertinent to questionable use of taxpayer money at the county recreation department, animal control, and road department — and, doubtless, felt a concern about his inquiries into their personal conduct or their conduct of their offices.
    I look forward to updates and commentary on this matter as the perpetrators of this ambush have their days in court.
    Ralph Garner
    Blue Ridge, Fannin County, Georgia

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