Beating the system?

What’s the opposite of a restraining order? And can I get one against Tom Owens?

Owens is the county commission candidate in rural Georgia who got a restraining order against a freelance journalist. That was two weeks ago. Last week, justice prevailed and the restraining order was lifted.

There are certainly bigger crimes against journalism than the one Owens perpetrated against a writer named George Chidi. But few are as curious and even fewer are as devious.

I had one lengthy phone call with Owens on Oct. 9, during which he professed more than once, “I love the media! And the media loves me!” He said I could contact him anytime, and if he wasn’t campaigning or dead, he’d call me back right away.

Since then, he’s lost not one but two court hearings in as many days. After repeated calls and emails, he finally got back to me once over the weekend. Despite more emails and voice mails, he never replied.

What a shame. I really wanted to talk to him because I’ve learned he’s a crazy genius who stumbled upon the perfect crime.

Owens told me he “feared for his life” because George Chidi “acted like he had mad cow disease” whenever they met. 

So Owens sought what’s officially called a temporary protection order. A judge granted it – as well she should have, Chidi admits.

“She did what she was supposed to do, and that’s the problem,” Chidi says. “All the biases in the law are toward granting a TPO, as it should be. Because if you don’t, you end up with women getting beaten and killed.”

No one anticipated a candidate would seek a restraining order to get a reporter off his back. Owens did, and because a judge is supposed to err on the side of the accuser, he had a week free of Chidi’s searing questions about his past.

“Problem is, there’s no punishment on the back end for people misusing the law, especially when the purpose is violating the First Amendment,” Chidi says. “And there’s no mechanism in the law to prevent this from happening again.”

In 90 minutes, everything Owens accomplished for a week was undone.

First came a magistrate’s hearing on Tuesday. Owens and his team defended their restraining order by seeking a stalking charge against Chidi. Their evidence was this anti-climactic video, which Owens told me all about but refused to show me because he wanted the magistrate to see it first…

“The magistrate saw the video, and then his demeanor changed fundamentally,” Chidi says. “The magistrate said, ‘What is this? Did you really think this supports a stalking charge?” And [Owens] kept saying, ‘He made me feel afraid, he’s devious.’ The hearing was over in 30 minutes.”

The next day, a judge wanted to know why the restraining order should stay in place since the stalking charge was denied. An hour later, it was unofficially lifted.

“I’m totally off the hook,” Chidi says, “but we’re still waiting on the formal ruling – which I’m sure will be Get the fuck out of here in Latin.”

So did Owens get away with one? Chidi thinks more than just journalists are irked about his abuse of the legal system.

“I don’t think he’s fully understood the damage he’s done to himself,” Chidi says. “He may not have the competence necessary to understand how incompetent he is.”

SPJ Georgia president Sharon Dunten was at the second hearing and was equally stunned.

“It was one of the most bizarre hearings I have ever witnessed,” she told me. “Owens didn’t have counsel. He attempted to represent himself. The judge basically had to do everything for him, including questioning his witnesses. I think she wanted to make sure everything was neat and tidy so the possibility of an appeal would be out of the question.”

Dunten added: “When I arrived outside the courtroom, an odd man was speaking to someone about how George was gay, the N word, and a Muslim lover. He later was one of Owens’ witnesses.”

That afternoon, Dunten’s board of directors heard her report and issued this statement…

SPJ Georgia is pleased that Georgia journalist George Chidi is free to work as a journalist again. Minutes after leaving the courtroom, Chidi settled into a corner booth of a local Decatur pub and opened up his laptop to start writing professionally again.

Thanks goes to the legal team of attorney Tom Clyde, board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, and Executive Director Hollie Manheimer for fighting the final step of releasing this outrageous restraining order against Chidi. Clyde is an attorney for Kilpatrick Stockton LLC of Georgia.

Thank you also goes to SPJ national for their prompt response for a journalist who was clearly facing a violation of the First Amendment.

So what happens now? Chidi is finishing his book on civic engagement in Georgia, which is why he was pursuing interviews with Owens in the first place.

“I think this will be its own chapter,” Chidi says.

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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