SPJ denounces effort to use courts to stop journalist from doing his job
Updated: 10.10.14 at 11 a.m. ET
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Oct. 10, 2014
Paul Fletcher, SPJ National President-Elect, 804.873.1893, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317.361.4134, email@example.com
Taylor Carlier, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317.920.4785, firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is condemning a political candidate in DeKalb County, Georgia, for seeking a “stalking temporary protective order” against George Chidi, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff reporter and freelance writer, and preventing him from doing his job.
The protective order was sought by Thomas Owens, a candidate for DeKalb County commissioner, after Chidi published a story about Owens’ years-long history of police reports and restraining orders filed against him, a no-contest plea by Owens to stalking and a legal accusation calling for unpaid child support. DeKalb County Magistrate Judge Nora Polk signed the protective order in DeKalb County Superior Court.
“I considered it irresponsible not to make every possible effort to give Mr. Owens an opportunity to offer his side of the story, and to help correct inaccuracies before publication,” Chidi explained in a blog post at www.georgechidi.com.
In the protective order, Owens claims Chidi “knowingly and willfully committed the following acts of stalking” on Sept. 18 during a candidate forum at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Tucker, Ga., and at another candidate forum Oct. 5 at the Kingsley Swim and Racquet Club in Dunwoody, Ga.
A stipulation of the order bans Chidi from being within 100 yards of Owens or contacting him or his immediate family in any way. A hearing is set for Oct. 22.
Owens has stated Chidi verbally threatened him by saying he would “destroy” Owens. Chidi told the Huffington Post via email that accusation “is an error at best, and a fabrication at worst. I didn't say it.”
“Stalking laws are criminal statutes used to combat domestic violence and other real problems,” said SPJ President-Elect Paul Fletcher. “For a candidate to try to use this against a journalist in the middle of election season is ludicrous. As Mr. Chidi noted in the title of his blog post, journalism is not a crime.”
He continued, “Mr. Chidi was attempting to cover an event and give Mr. Owens the opportunity to address his record to readers. It is shameful that a political candidate – in this case Mr. Owens -- clearly does not understand the First Amendment.”
Two days after service of the protective order, Chidi was served again, with a motion for contempt signed by Judge Richard C. Foxworth in DeKalb County Superior Court. The notice of civil contempt claims Chidi violated the protective order by “contacting third parties via social media” when he posted information about the story online, which Chidi’s attorneys advised him was appropriate. Chidi’s attorneys, Thomas M. Clyde and Lesli N. Gaither of Kilpatrick, Townsend and Stockton, LLP, filed an emergency motion to vacate the protective order Wednesday afternoon.
“This motion for contempt against Mr. Chidi for posting a story on a website or on social media is an even more outrageous violation of the First Amendment,” Fletcher said.
“The principle of this is severely damaging to the civil process and to journalism,” Chidi told the Associated Press. “If a candidate for public office can shut off unfavorable coverage by abusing the temporary protective order process without penalty that is going to happen to everybody. It is a standard practice to say that questions that you don’t like are harassment.”
Locally, SPJ is mobilizing in support of Chidi via the efforts of SPJ’s Georgia Chapter. Sharon Dunten, SPJ Georgia Chapter President, plans on attending the court hearing Tuesday to advocate on behalf of Chidi and offer any assistance that might be needed.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.