Middle Georgia federal court affirms right to record in public spaces

    A federal judge says Kennon Dunn, an independent journalist in central Georgia, can proceed with his lawsuit against the City of Fort Valley. Here he is pictured in Marshallville after attempting to make a verbal public records request earlier this year. Screenshot from Central Civilian Auditors YouTube

    This story was updated at noon Friday, May 22. 

    An independent central Georgia video journalist can argue his First Amendment case against the city of Fort Valley after officials tried to have his lawsuit tossed out, says a federal judge.

    Judge Tilman Self in the Middle District of Georgia ruled this week that Kennon Dunn can continue with his claims that Fort Valley city officials violated his constitutional rights when officers arrested him for filming inside the City Hall lobby, which is a public space.

    Attorneys for the city officials tried to have the case dismissed. Fort Valley, home to about 9,000 people, is about 30 minutes southwest of Macon.

    In his decision, Self noted that the First Amendment protects the right to gather information about what public officials do on public property, including the right to record matters of public interest.

    “Pretty simple rule,” Self wrote in his order.

    Dunn, a military veteran who refers to himself on camera as Central Civilian Auditor, runs a YouTube channel called Central Civilian Auditors that has more than 8,000 followers. His videos show him testing his First Amendment rights in various public scenarios and, as a person with a disability, checking for accessibility in the public sphere.

    “This decision vindicates citizen journalists’ role as watchdogs and informing citizens about their government,” said Dunn’s attorney and Georgia First Amendment Foundation board member Gerald Weber in a statement Wednesday. “Our client was arrested for just filming in public places, and the judge says that arrest was clearly unconstitutional.”

    Some of Dunn’s recent videos feature him walking into Marshallville City Hall and trying to make a verbal request for records and, separately, confronting a Macon state correctional officer who left his work keys in a locked prisoner transport van while shopping at Wal-Mart.

    His lawsuit against Fort Valley officials centers on a 2018 run-in with police officers after he showed up at City Hall with cameras and began filming the lobby for a report he said he was doing on missing persons. He also filmed the mayor from a distance as she worked on the other side of a glass door.

    In an edited video of the encounter, Dunn is confronted by police officers while standing in the lobby. One officer asked Dunn about his “agenda” and told him he cannot take pictures inside the lobby, which is a public space. Officers became agitated when Dunn did not provide his name or ID.

    Dunn, who walks with the assistance of a cane, was handcuffed and charged with disorderly conduct – a charge that was later dismissed. He is still banned from entering the Fort Valley Police Department or Town Hall without a police escort, even when trying to attend a public meeting.

    City officials failed to show that Dunn “jeopardized the peace and safety or that anyone was reasonably alarmed (as opposed to merely annoyed) by his presence as is required by the loitering statute,” the judge wrote in his order.

    Dunn also claims the city has ignored requests filed under the state’s open records act where he asked for documents related to his encounter with the Fort Valley police.

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.