Mayor turns off activist's camera at city of Cumming meeting
Attorney General Olens opens violation inquiry

by Aldo Nahed

April 18, 2012

CUMMING, Ga. — For months, activist Nydia Tisdale has recorded pretty much every meeting in Forsyth County — from yawners like the finance committee meetings to lively town hall meetings, sheriff’s and commissioners’ election debates.

On Tuesday, April 17, her video camera was turned off, but not by Tisdale.

Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt told Cumming Police Chief Casey Tatum to stop Tisdale from recording their April 17 meeting.

“We don’t allow filming inside of the city hall,” Gravitt said. “Unless there’s a specific reason.”

The incident is captured on Tisdale’s camera and is fast becoming her most watched video on her YouTube channel.

As Tisdale and her camcorder are being escorted out of city hall chambers by police, she’s heard asking city attorney Dana Miles to step in, but he remains silent on the issue.

Miles did not return a request for comments for this article.

“I’m exercising my right as a citizen to record an open and public meeting,” Tisdale said.

But Gravitt stood his ground.

“It’s not up for discussion,” Gravitt said.

What’s at issue is whether Gravitt has the authority to shut off someone’s video camera at a public meeting. Several judges choose to keep cameras out of the courtroom, but is the mayor the same as a judge?

According to Georgia House Bill 397, signed by Gov. Nathan Deal coincidentally on April 17, “The public at all times shall be afforded access to meetings declared open to the public. Visual and sound recording during open meetings shall be permitted.”

Hollie Manheimer, executive director for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the new and old version of the open meetings act permit camcorders at public meetings.

“Both the former version of the open meetings act, as well as the new law that was signed into law on April 17, permit citizens to videotape city council meetings and do any other type of taping, such as audio taping,” Manheimer said.

Gravitt does permit photo cameras and audio recordings, and the city council meetings are video recorded by city staff, said Steve Bennett, assistant city manager.

The videos recorded by the city staff are available public record.

Tisdale, a Roswell resident, videographer and blogger for controversial site AboutForsyth, said she will file a complaint with state Attorney General Sam Olens and may further file a civil action against the city.

“A formal complaint has been filed,” she told the Forsyth Herald the following day.

Tisdale did watch the rest of the meeting and even took pictures and audio recording.

Olens said he watched Tisdale’s video and his office is sending a letter to the city of Cumming attorney. Olens said Tisdale was within her rights to take video of the meeting.

“The first thing we do when we open a file is send a letter requesting information from the governmental entity,” Olens said, “if they seek to provide an answer to the allegation.”