What Owens knows

Tom Owens and I agreed on one thing he told me last night. After that, not much else.

“I’m not against a free press,” he said during our 15-minute call. “But a free press should be respectful of people, not screaming and hollering.”

“Certainly,” I replied. “And if you got evidence that George Chidi screamed at you, I’ll change my strong opinion on this issue.”

The issue is a restraining order Owens convinced a judge to sign on Monday. It bans Chidi, a freelance journalist, from communicating with Owens or getting within 100 yards of him. Yesterday, I offered to lead a restraining order extravaganza.

A few hours after that post, Owens and I spoke. I asked him for details on what Chidi did. The candidate for DeKalb County commission said the two men were at a candidates’ forum when “George acted like he had mad cow disease and was screaming and making everyone uncomfortable.”

Of course, Chidi denies he did anything more than his job.

He notes that Owens released a video from a subsequent encounter at another candidates forum – which purports to show Chidi being threatening but really just shows a reporter being slightly annoying because the candidate keeps ducking his questions.

I was genuinely appreciative of Owens for speaking with me when he obviously knew I didn’t agree with him. I asked if he had more damning evidence than just his word and the words of his campaign pals.

“We have a lot more video that was taken,” he said. The video is from that first forum and shows Chidi’s “obnoxious behavior.”

“Can I see it?” I asked.

“I don’t want to put it out in the public domain yet till we get to court,” Owens said. “We gonna have us a probable cause hearing.”

Owens also says Chidi threatened him another time, but “there are no witnesses to it, when he got up in my face and quietly said, ‘I’m gonna kill you.'”

Owens says he “fears for his life” but is also angry: “When you approach me and tell me you’re gonna destroy me, I don’t have to take that, sir.”

Owens says the big hearing in front of a judge is 9 a.m. Tuesday. That’s when he shows the video. If it proves him right, I’ll be the first to report it – I hate when any profession circles the wagons and doesn’t admit when one of its own behaves badly.

But if this as-yet-unseen video shows nothing more revealing than the public video does, Owens needs to drop his restraining order or have a judge do it for him. If it stands, so will Georgia’s journalism community.

SPJ’s Georgia chapter will cover the hearing.

SPJ Georgia president Sharon Dunten issued this statement from her board…

It has been a turbulent couple of months for journalists in the Atlanta metro area as a Dekalb County Commissioner, Elaine Boyer, admitted to stealing more than $90,000 from taxpayers during the past two years. As new candidates announce their intention to replace Boyer’s position on the county commission, Atlanta and Georgia journalists are closely vetting the new candidates, including Georgia journalist George Chidi.

SPJ Georgia supports Chidi for vetting Tom Owens, who is running for the empty commissioner position. As part of the vetting process, Chidi approached and asked Owens questions at two public forums, sent emails and left messages on voicemails.

In return, Owens found a judge to grant a temporary stalking protection order against Chidi, who was just doing his job. In addition, days later when Chidi did publish a blog about Owens online, he was served a notice of civil contempt for violating the TPO.

Since when does a county temporary protection order require a journalist not to publish an article online or in print?

SPJ Georgia will be closely following any developments until this controversy is resolved.

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


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