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Commission Candidate Threatens Restraining Order Against Local Journalist

Commission District 6 candidate Stephanie Johnson.

Athens-Clarke County Commission candidate Stephanie Johnson has threatened to seek a restraining order against local journalist Chris Dowd, which one First Amendment expert described as an attempt to intimidate him and keep him from doing his job.

Oconee County attorney Kevin Epps, on behalf of Johnson, sent Dowd a cease-and-desist letter Mar. 27 accusing him of criminal stalking and intimidation. Epps did not give any specifics, only referencing “your recent actions.”

Dowd said he believes the letter stemmed from a recent incident when Johnson accused him of sharing a copy of her 2021 severance letter to her Google Drive, which she took as a threat. However, Dowd denied that he shared the letter, obtained in the course of his reporting on Johnson (then named Stephanie Maddox) being fired from her job as ACC internal auditor by the mayor and commission. According to Dowd, the document was set to “public” and could be accessed by anyone.

Epps wrote that if Dowd attempted to contact Johnson again, he would file for a restraining order against him that would ban him from speaking to Johnson or even being in her presence, essentially barring him from continuing to cover local government and politics if she were to win.

Dowd contacted the UGA law school’s First Amendment Clinic, which sent a response to Epps on Mar. 29. The letter from staff attorney Samantha Hamilton said that Epps failed to describe any conduct by Dowd that could constitute a crime, and that judges are generally extremely reluctant to grant restraining orders against journalists. 

Hamilton wrote: “The only interactions Mr. Dowd has had with Mrs. Johnson have been in his capacity as a journalist reporting on matters of public concern to the Athens community. Mrs. Johnson is an electoral candidate running for the District 6 seat on the Athens-Clarke County Board of Commissioners who has worked in local government for years. The suggestion that Mr. Dowd, as a journalist, should be prohibited from even being in the same room as Mrs. Johnson during her campaign for public office strains credulity. Mr. Dowd has not engaged in any conduct that can even remotely be characterized as stalking or intimidation. In contrast, Mrs. Johnson’s sending a letter from legal counsel to chill Mr. Dowd’s ordinary newsgathering and reporting amounts to intimidation, threatening infringement of his First Amendment rights.”

Epps sent the cease-and-desist letter on the same day Flagpole published a feature on the District 6 race written by Dowd. In addition to running the blog Athens Politics Nerd, Dowd is a freelance Flagpole contributor. The cease-and-desist letter does not mention Flagpole, nor has Flagpole received any complaints from the Johnson campaign about his coverage.

“I certainly understand the first amendment and respect the freedom of the press,” Johnson said in a statement to Flagpole. Although Mr. Dowd is attempting to relate the cease and desist letter sent to him and his first amendment rights, Mr. Dowd has failed to tell the public about his individual actions against me outside his capacity as a reporter. The letter was sent after careful consideration and only after all other attempts to get Mr. Dowd to correct his behavior failed. I have made the choice of making honesty a habit in my life, and the letter to Mr. Dowd supports this choice.”

Asked for specifics, Johnson declined to comment further. Dowd told Flagpole that all of his interactions with Johnson have been journalism-related.

Johnson is running against restaurant and nonprofit owner Rashe Malcolm for the District 6 seat on the commission. Incumbent Jesse Houle opted not to run for re-election.