Nydia Tisdale was sentenced Monday to serve a year of probation, 40 hours of community service and pay a $1,000 fine for her August 2014 altercation with a Dawson County law enforcement officer.
Tisdale was found guilty of misdemeanor obstruction of an officer, but was found not guilty of felony obstruction of an officer and criminal trespass. The charges stemmed from her forced removal from Burt’s Pumpkin Farm in Dawsonville, where she was filming a Republican campaign event.
The self-proclaimed citizen journalist was unfazed by the verdict read by Dawson County Superior Court Judge Martha Christian. The sentence largely followed the request of Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer, who prosecuted Tisdale.
The judge’s sentence differed from Greer’s request in one significant way: Tisdale will not be required to write a letter of apology to former Dawson County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Tony Wooten, the officer who arrested her in 2014 — a request made by Greer.
Tisdale was sentenced under Georgia’s First Time Offenders Act, which means that if she completes the sentence without issue, her record will be cleared.
After the sentencing, she was ushered into a conference room with one of her two lawyers, Catherine Bernard. Bruce Harvey, Tisdale’s other lawyer, told supporters of Tisdale in the common area outside the courtroom that the case would be appealed. Tisdale told The Times after the trial that she would appeal.
“I still think they got it wrong on the third charge. The underlying charge was criminal trespass. If that’s gone, why did he put hands on me? Why was I arrested?” Tisdale said. “... Maybe I’ll get a better (outcome) from a higher court.”
In the meantime, being sentenced as a first-time offender offers Tisdale the chance to clear her name.
“Right now, our first offender status means an adjudication of guilt has not been entered and therefore she can legitimately say she’s not been convicted of anything,” Harvey told the crowd.
She may still enter public buildings and continue filming events for her website, aboutforsyth.com, Harvey said. However, if she violates any conditions placed on her she could be returned to court, found guilty and sentenced with the maximum penalties of her offense, which include up to four years in prison.
Tisdale is still active on her website and is still filming public events in Georgia. She said the trial has been a drain on her energy and resources, though her attorneys were working pro bono, but that she intended to continue recording events for her site.
Her defense called 10 witnesses ranging from public officials to First Amendment advocates to offer evidence that the citizen journalist had never been disruptive or a danger during her filming of public events in metro Atlanta.
Witnesses called by the defense included Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson, former CNN Vice President Richard Griffiths (now president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation) and Forsyth County Solicitor General Bill Finch.
As an impromptu request from Tisdale, even WSB-TV reporter Mike Petchenik took the stand Monday. Questioned by the defense, Petchenik said WSB has used Tisdale’s videos in the past and found her to be truthful and credible.
Finally, Tisdale herself gave a statement at the end of the hearing.
Tisdale said it was “most unfortunate that this event happened as it did. I can’t fully understand it, because most candidates are appreciative of my videos.”
The videographer wept as she talked about her ailing mother, who was recently admitted into hospice care and is expected to not live through the year, and the thought of being in jail while her mother was dying.
“I’m almost grateful my mother has Alzheimer’s so she isn’t aware of anything that’s happened to me in the past three years,” Tisdale told Christian and the crowded courtroom.
In 2014, Tisdale was arrested by Wooten at a campaign event attended by many high-profile Republicans. The audience included Gov. Nathan Deal and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins along with other statewide officeholders.
Tisdale continued filming the publicly advertised event, held on private property, after being asked to stop filming by organizers. She was then forcibly removed by Wooten, who claimed during the trial that he was kicked and elbowed by Tisdale as he took her away from the campaign event.
Tisdale and her attorneys asked the judge to limit her sentence to time served for the night she spent in jail after being arrested three years ago. They also asked the sentence be suspended or erased if she paid a fine.
Greer requested Tisdale be sentenced to one year of probation, be forced to pay a $1,000 fine and be required to write a letter of apology to Wooten.
Several men in the audience guffawed at Greer’s request to force Tisdale to apologize, prompting a rebuke from Christian, who warned they would be removed from the courtroom.
“I knew it would draw that type of response,” Greer said, continuing that the United States is a nation of laws and that law enforcement officers should be respected by the public.
“When we stop respecting law enforcement officers, there is no hope for us,” he said.
Harvey, meanwhile, said the request for an apology was “beyond the pale” and “ludicrous.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a letter of apology from a law enforcement officer to my clients,” Harvey said, rattling off a list of abuses against former clients by police, including being “beaten,” “shot” and having their homes “ransacked.”
In delivering the sentence, Christian responded to Harvey’s comments, saying that law enforcement officers “don’t ask for letters of apology” and that officers are spat on, threatened and shot in the line of duty.
“That is part of their job. They don’t ask for apologies or thanks,” Christian said.
Greer also emphasized that Tisdale’s case and her sentencing was not about the First Amendment but about whether she obstructed an officer after having been lawfully requested to stop recording and leave private property.
“What right does anyone have to break the law in the name of another law?” Greer asked. “… The First Amendment doesn’t trump any other amendment. Laws are written … for the good of all of us, and if you don’t have to follow the rule of law in the name of another law, that’s not democracy. That’s something completely different.”
Outside the courtroom, Harvey told Tisdale’s supporters that the case did have constitutional underpinnings.
Questioned by a supporter, Harvey said he believed the sentence would have a chilling effect on people like Tisdale, who was filming public figures at a publicly advertised event on private property.
“I think it will,” Harvey said. “That’s why I argued to the judge; she says it’s not a First Amendment case, but it is. It may not (technically) be, but it is.”
Tisdale was clear about the consequences of the case and her way forward.
“It’s a tragedy for Dawson County. It’s a tragedy for Burt’s Pumpkin Farm. It’s a tragedy for Dawson County Sheriff’s Office. It’s a tragedy for journalism and the First Amendment,” she told The Times. “It’s just a real crying shame that people who really didn’t have the authority to eject me decided to target me and attack me, and there have been a lot of repercussions.
“And it’s not over yet.”