Blogger Who Fought Restraining Order Wins—With Journalists Group’s Backing
The Society of Professional Journalists is applauding two judges who stopped a Georgia political candidate's attempts to get a protective order for harassment against a blogger who wrote an unflattering profile of him.
With the backing and support of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), a blogger and freelance journalist is no longer facing the threat of legal restrictions on his political reporting.
George Chidi, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff reporter, says it was common courtesy for him to offer DeKalb County Commission candidate Thomas Owens the chance to comment on unflattering allegations against him that Chidi was covering in a piece for a Georgia political blog.
“Tom Owens is what happens when no one gives a damn about local government,” Chidi wrote in the article, which he says is intended for a book on civic engagement in Georgia.
But instead of offering Chidi a statement, Owens asked for—and got—a temporary protective order against him to bar him from stalking, harassment, and intimidation.
Owens’ argument? Chidi isn’t really a journalist, and the candidate found his style of questioning aggressive when Chidi approached him—first at a public event, and later at an athletic club.
“He was very threatening, bombastic and he wouldn’t identify himself as any type of reporter or blogger or anything,” Owens argued to Politico last week. “I don’t talk to anybody that threatens me.”
Chidi’s profile was still published this month on the Peach Pundit blog. It raised questions about Owens’ personal history—including a legal dispute with a local mosque, conflicts with business owners, and restraining orders filed against him by local politicians and romantic partners—in the midst of a short special-election campaign that already had corruption issues at the forefront.
“Mr. Owens has every right to refuse comment. And he has plainly done so,” Chidi wrote on his website the day the piece was published. “But if this is allowed to stand unchallenged, it sets a precedent that a politician receiving unfavorable press at a sensitive moment can use the power of the court to bar coverage. The word ‘chilling’ doesn’t cover it. It’s outrageous and dangerous and almost certainly unconstitutional.”
Two days later, Chidi was served with a motion of contempt signed by a DeKalb County Superior Court judge. It stated that by posting his piece online and sharing it via social media, the writer had violated the protective order.
Fortunately for Chidi, SPJ and subsequent judges agreed with him.
How SPJ Helped
Last week, SPJ spoke out on the case, arguing that Owens’ use of antistalking laws to bar a journalist from doing his job shows that the politician “clearly does not understand the First Amendment.”
“For a candidate to try to use this against a journalist in the middle of election season is ludicrous,” SPJ President-Elect Paul Fletcher said in a statement. “As Mr. Chidi noted in the title of his blog post, journalism is not a crime.”
Beyond its supportive comments, SPJ offered Chidi legal help and backing through its Georgia chapter. That support came in handy this week: On Tuesday, Gwinnett County Magistrate Judge Kenneth Sissel threw out a warrant application on stalking charges filed by Owens, and on Wednesday, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker dismissed the protective order entirely.
“SPJ congratulates Judge Sissel and Judge Becker for upholding the rights of journalists to interview, report and write about their subjects,” Fletcher said. “Their common sense approach in throwing both of these cases out of court shows that our judicial system works and ensures that the First Amendment still protects the rights of journalists.”
Writer George Chidi, the subject of a restraining order from a political candidate. (Handout photo)