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Open meetings suit heads to be decided by jury
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Forsyth County News

Both sides recorded some victories, and some defeats, in summary judgment motion decisions rendered in federal court last month in the ongoing open meetings and free speech dispute between a Roswell woman and the City of Cumming. Portions of the lawsuit are still headed to trial before a jury, but the judge narrowed down what exactly they will hear.

United States District Court Judge Richard W. Story found that Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt, Police Chief Casey Tatum, and Deputy Chief Walter Cook cannot be held personally liable for actions taken against Nydia Tisdale at a city council meeting in 2012. But the role of the city government as a whole in the case, which fostered the involvement of the state attorney general in a separate legal action against the city, remains to be decided at trial.

The case stems from an April 2012 incident where Tisdale was asked by Gravitt to stop filming during a Cumming City Council meeting and was asked to leave. Later in the meeting, she returned and continued filming with a different device.

In August, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens filed a complaint against Gravitt and the City of Cumming in the county’s Superior Court regarding the same incident, claiming both entities violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act when they:

- “Wrongfully prevented [Tisdale] from video recording a meeting at the start of the meeting”
- “Wrongfully removed [Tisdale] from the meeting when she had done nothing wrong”
- “Wrongfully prevented [Tisdale] from later videotaping the meeting, without sound, using a different camera.”

In that case, Senior Superior Court Judge Robert Adamson ordered the mayor and city to pay $12,000 in penalties plus attorney fees. The City Council voted to appeal the decision shortly after.

Because of the previous decision in Olens’ suit, the District Court dismissed as moot Tisdale’s Open Meetings complaint, which was included in the motions ruled upon by Story last month.

Tisdale’s attorney, Gerry Weber, said he was surprised the claim was dismissed at the federal court level and that he has asked for reconsideration.

“Citizens have every right to film public meetings,” he said. “She’s been filming courts and government meetings across the state. It’s something she does on a very regular basis.”

Kevin Tallant, a city attorney not on this case, provided a copy of the 41-page order to Forsyth County News, but City of Cumming attorney Dana B. Miles declined comment, saying it was against city policy to talk about active cases.

Judge Story ordered a jury to decide if Tisdale’s rights to free speech by the First Amendment were violated. He ruled, however, that the mayor, police chief and deputy police chief cannot not be held personally liable if there is a violation.

A motion before Judge Story also raised the issue of whether Tisdale’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated under its search and seizure clause, after her person and camera were “seized while gathering information in a public place.” Both the issue of whether a violation occurred and whether the city is liable will proceed to trial, Weber said.

Story concluded the defendants did not violate any state tort claims because they did not act with the intent to injure Tisdale and were subject to immunity given to government officials. At issue were claims of false imprisonment, battery and false arrest.

Weber said the trial date for free speech and search and seizure violations and the city’s liability has not been set yet.