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Media group wins free-press battle over land-swap lawsuit document demands

A stock photo of a court gavel. (Photo by the Tingey Injury Law Firm via Unsplash.)

By John Ruch

The Atlanta Community Press Collective (ACPC) has prevailed in a legal battle over attorneys’ demands for it to hand over unpublished reporting and financial records, a move criticized as free-speech repression against the Defend the Atlanta Forest protests.

However, it remains unclear if other media outlets and activist organizations targeted by similar demands are off the hook. The demands came as part of a lawsuit where environmental groups are challenging DeKalb County’s swap of parkland to developer Ryan Millsap – property that, along with Atlanta’s adjacent public safety training center site, are targets of the protest movement. Attorneys for the County and Millsap’s Blackhall Real Estate Phase II, LCC issued broad document requests to a large number of uninvolved non-parties, including ACPC, the East Atlanta Community Association, Unicorn Riot and Community Movement Builders (CMB).

When SaportaReport first revealed the document demands last month, attorneys who advised some of the recipients said the demands fit a national pattern of attempting to chill protest movements by essentially dragging uninvolved parties into a lawsuit. The tactic, they said, is harassing and intimidating media and advocacy groups with irrelevant, overwhelming and illegal document demands.

ACPC says it understands it has prevailed with the end last month of the lawsuit’s “discovery,” or document-collecting, which also allowed the media outlet to publicly comment for the first time about the situation. ACPC was represented by the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law.

“We made the decision not to let the situation with Blackhall affect our reporting or operations, though it certainly weighed heavily on our thoughts, especially early on,” said the ACPC – an anonymously-run collective – in a written statement. “In solidarity with the other organizations targeted by the lawsuit, we determined not to cede any ground in what is a clear attack on press freedom and independence.”

“The UGA First Amendment Clinic hopes that its successful assertion of ACPC’s rights under federal and state law will serve to discourage similar litigation requests to other news organizations in the future,” said Allyson Veile, a Clinic legal fellow who represented the collective.

Attorney Leesa Guarnotta of Burr & Forman, who filed the document demand on behalf of Blackhall in October 2022, did not respond to a comment request. Neither did Kasey Sturm, the attorney for the main lawsuit plaintiffs, the South River Watershed Alliance and the South River Forest Coalition. In court documents, both groups complained that they, too, were targeted with overbroad and illegal document demands that violated their First Amendment rights.

Court documents show that ACPC – whose advocacy reporting favors the protests – was a particular target of document demands, as was CMB, which is involved in the protest movement. An attorney for CMB did not respond to a comment request. ACPC says it does not know the status of other non-parties’ document demands and Veile would not disclose whether the First Amendment Clinic has represented any of them as well.

The document demand letter from Blackhall – a copy of which ACPC provided to SaportaReport – shows extremely broad requests for information. “All communications, internal or otherwise” and “all photographs or videos” of any land-swap protest, meeting or gathering was one.

Another was “all internal communications” about the park, the land swap, the lawsuit complaint, Blackhall or Millsap. Another request for all such communications with “any third party,” as well as several specific ones, including the lawsuit plaintiffs. The demand also called for any information about ACPC’s funders, as well as any specific money exchanges with the plaintiffs or their attorneys.

In a November response letter, the First Amendment Clinic blasted the demand as “improper” on a variety of counts. “ACPC rejects in the strongest terms Blackhall’s attempt to use Georgia’s non-party discovery mechanism to rake through a journalistic entity’s files for materials that bear no significant relation to the underlying litigation and impose a serious burden and harm on non-party ACPC,” the letter said.

For starters, the entire demand was invalid because it was sent only by email, which is not proper court procedure, the Clinic said. SaportaReport previously noted that appeared to be the case for some other demands, raising the question of their intent and whether recipients might mistakenly respond anyway.

But the demand also failed on a number of substantial legal grounds, the Clinic said. Georgia has a “shield law” that gives journalists partial but broad privilege to maintain the privacy of reporting-related documents. And Blackhall’s demand did not meet the standards to overcome that privilege, as there was no sign the documents were necessary or relevant to the case, the Clinic said.

Even leaving aside the shield law, the demand was an “undue burden on ACPC,” the Clinic said. Nothing in the demand overcame ACPC’s “strong interest in maintaining privacy over its work product, particularly its confidential sources and unpublished work.”

The demand for information about funders was another problem. The Clinic said that information “has no conceivable bearing on the underlying litigation and appears designed only to harass ACPC and infringe on its privacy interests.”

It appears that Blackhall’s attorneys never responded to the Clinic and did not attempt to seek a court order forcing the production of such documents.

The document demands are part of a larger picture of First Amendment issues with Defend the Atlanta Forest protests. The head of the Oregon-based Civil Liberties Defense Center, which helped direct some of the non-party targets in the document demands to local legal representation, previously said the pattern is similar to that of such national-level controversies as the Dakota Access pipeline protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota.

Controversial domestic terrorism charges have been criticized by national and international organizations as a politicized attempt to chill protests. First Amendment lawsuits are burgeoning with claims that police illegally arrested dozens of protesters and at least two journalists. The Atlanta Police Department’s second-in-command has publicly touted the apparently unlawful arrest of a man for filming officers at the training center site. Some local civil rights attorneys say there is evidence of police officers essentially engaging in illegal counterprotests and arresting people as retaliation for First Amendment speech. The document demands tied into that concern because internal media information could have been shared with co-defendant DeKalb County, which simultaneously is policing both sites and prosecuting some of the domestic terrorism charges.

On the other hand, the political climate is also energizing a kind of Newer Left of do-it-yourself activism and journalism, with ACPC as a prime example. With a mission of advocating the abolition of police forces and prisons, the collective began with research on the history of the former Atlanta Prison Farm, now pegged as the training center site. It has grown into a significant source of reporting on the training center, protests and related issues, filling a gap left by the quasi-demise of Creative Loafing Atlanta and countering the likes of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose corporate owner led the training center’s secretive fundraising. Now ACPC is expanding into Atlanta City Council coverage and is fundraising to grow further.

The ACPC’s fundraising webpage says “we sought to bridge the information gap between the general public and local governments beholden to the backroom dealings of the ‘Atlanta Way’ and a disinterested corporate media landscape rife with ownership conflicts of interest. As we delved into covering this small part of our political landscape, we saw the need to push ourselves and expand our coverage across more areas of government in the hope of increasing the accessibility of this vital information.”



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