Augusta-Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree agreed to give The Augusta Press equal access to information his department disseminates to the public and other media.
The decision follows a First Amendment lawsuit the online newspaper filed Dec. 1 in Richmond County Superior Court. The suit alleged Roundtree discriminated against The Augusta Press by withholding information his department routinely distributed to other news media.
Tameka Haynes, the sheriff’s department’s lawyer, asked via a Dec. 21 email for the lawsuit to be dismissed. She sent the email to the newspaper’s attorney David Hudson (no relation to the reporter).
“Per our phone call, this is to confirm that the sheriff agrees to add The Augusta Press to the Sheriff’s Office media release emails and conferences. Please let us know if The Augusta Press will agree to dismiss the complaint,” Haynes wrote.
Court documents highlighted an incident on Nov. 12 when Roundtree’s office “circulated a media release concerning the arrest of a deputy. This media information was not sent to The Augusta Press, but it was sent by Defendant’s office to TV, radio and print media in Richmond County and McDuffie County, Georgia, and in Aiken.”
The paper has also been excluded from the department’s Media Day and from access to information the Sheriff’s Department routinely supplies to other Augusta news organizations, according to the complaint.
The Augusta Press has tried to work with the sheriff’s department to find a solution to the problem since last February, according to Publisher Joe Edge. That was when Edge learned the sheriff had decided to withhold all cooperation because Austin Rhodes wrote three columns for the paper after it first began publication. Rhodes has not written for the paper since February, Edge added.
Most recently, the newspaper sent Roundtree a letter dated Nov. 15 that tried “to persuade the defendant from continuing to exclude The Augusta Press from media releases and conferences,” Edge said.
When that attempt failed, Edge said the newspaper had no other option but to take the sheriff to court.
“We were forced to sue on behalf of the community we serve and the people who read our paper. The sheriff knew we are a daily news media organization, and he chose to exclude our paper from getting information that is vital to the public interest,” Edge said.
According to Hudson, the case is poised to be settled “without prejudice,” which means that if the sheriff returns to excluding The Augusta Press from obtaining information in the public interest, it can be revived.