Open government and media groups demand charges be dropped against Fannin County journalist jailed for requesting public records
ATLANTA — July 5, 2016—Charges should be dropped against a Fannin County newspaper publisher jailed after requesting public records, say a group of government transparency and media organizations in Georgia.
The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, Atlanta Press Club, Georgia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Georgia Press Association jointly call for the dismissal of charges against Mark Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Thomason was arrested on June 24 and charged with attempted identity fraud, identity fraud and making a false statement as part of his open records request for copies of certain checks documenting spending from judicial operating accounts.
Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Brenda Weaver, who pushed for the indictments against the journalist, is named on one of the accounts included in open records requests filed by Thomason and his lawyer. Weaver told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she was concerned Thomason and his lawyer would use the banking information on the checks to commit fraud.
Nothing in the factual background of this dispute raises the slightest suspicion that Thomason and his lawyer sought the bank records for any fraudulent purpose. It is apparent that they were seeking the records to determine how judicial operating funds had been used.
The charge of making a false statement also is not justifiable under Georgia law. The open
records request said that some checks “appear to have not been deposited but cashed illegally.” That wording formed the basis for the false statement charge. But the wording is a statement of opinion — not a false statement.
Judge Weaver told the Journal-Constitution that she “doesn’t react well” when her honesty is questioned. Her poor reaction is evident in the case against the journalist and his lawyer. It is absolutely inappropriate to use criminal charges to try to silence a critic. This case goes against the spirit and purpose of the state’s open records laws and is an affront to the exercise of First Amendment rights.