On March 15, Avid Bookshop filed a lawsuit against the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department, claiming that the jail’s policy blocking unauthorized retailers from sending books to inmates violates the bookstore’s First Amendment rights.

I’m Chloe Savan, and I met with Lucy Bertsch and David Eberly, two Grady Newsource reporters who covered the issue in their story, Athens Bookstore Files First Amendment Rights Lawsuit.

Savan: So before we start, could you just introduce yourself — like name, year, major, all that fun stuff.

Eberly: My name’s David Eberly. I’m a fourth-year journalism major in Grady.

Bertsch: I’m Lucy. I’m a fourth year journalism major as well.

Savan: So how did you find this story, and what drew you to cover it?

Bertsch: So I actually met the owner of the bookstore at a different event that I was covering for Newsource. And she was like, “Let me get your email so that I can give you some of our press releases and things like that.” I was like, “That sounds awesome.” And I didn’t really know if anything was going to come of it, but she ended up sending one like two weeks later, and I kind of just jumped on it, so then I just reached out and started interviewing people. 

And I think what really caught my eye in this story is because it’s a First Amendment case. And I’ve never — I haven’t really seen a ton of First Amendment cases on the local level. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of national stories about book bands and stuff like that, but I hadn’t really seen a local level story for it. And so that’s why I was interested in it.

Savan: That’s so cool that you met the owner and you’ve gotten the press releases personally. 

Bertsch: Yeah it was awesome. I came in to interview their operations manager, and the owner was there and she was like, “I told you I’d get you something, Lucy.” So I feel like she kind of knew what was coming, and she wanted to make sure a lot of publications and news places knew about it. 

Savan: David, do you have anything to add?

Eberly: I know, at least from my point of view on the digital side, I thought it was a great story. I know that in some places around the country, the past few years, there’s been a lot of controversy about schools and whatnot restricting certain books allowed to be taught and whatnot. And I know that that’s been kind of an issue in some areas, this First Amendment right to be able to have access to whatever literature you so choose, as is one of the major pillars of American society is being able to access the information that you want to, and you’re free to do so. So I thought it was important that while Lucy got more of a character angle, that we provide more about the actual filing and a little bit more of the nitty gritty from a legal perspective about the case. And I thought that that was best done through the web article.

Savan: Yeah, for sure. I do have questions about the legal aspect of this. But before that, what did the division of labor look like between you two?

Bertsch: So basically, David, he was on — I think you were our digital producer?

Eberly: Yeah, I was digital producer.

Bertsch: Yeah, and I was just a MMJ (multimedia journalist) for the day. And so I did the interviews with the operations manager, and I also got connected with the First Amendment group at UGA, and they got me connected with another lady who’s been working on this case and knew a lot about the case. So I interviewed her too. And then I also reached out to the Gwinnett County Jail. Well, actually the sheriff’s department because the case is connected to them. So that’s what I did. And then I just did the interviews and the video stuff.

Eberly: Yeah, so long story short, she did all the hard work, and I just put it into text and put it on website.

Bertsch: I feel like you added more, like you said about the legal stuff that I didn’t have.

Eberly: Yeah, so the stuff in particular that I added that wasn’t so much harped on in Lucy’s video story was about the press release and the original comments that they had made. I know one of the characters in Lucy’s video was actually one of the people who made a statement. He’s the bookshop’s Operations Manager, if I remember correctly. But I cited their initial press release, and what their argument was in that press release. And the one thing that was really big, that I really tried to highlight was the policy about the authorized retailers. I knew that that was something that I needed to elaborate for an audience of like, what is an authorized retailer? Why is this important to a local bookstore? And what say does the jail have in this? Because that’s not something that you could talk about extensively in a video story, and it’d be as captivating. You really, in a video story, want to focus on the characters and their reactions and opinions and stuff. So, I thought that it would be best expressed through the web article.

Savan: Yeah, I agree. I do like that the web article did add some more context to that. I liked hearing the Gwinnett County Jail’s perspective of it. So I’m glad that you decided to add that in because I think that was a very, very good choice.
But as far as the legal hoops that you had to jump through, did the fact that it is a pending litigation pose some struggles?

Bertsch: I definitely did have some struggles. Getting in contact with the jail was super difficult because it’s not actually through the jail, it’s through the sheriff’s department. So trying to just figure that out was kind of complicated. But then once I figured that out, reaching out to the sheriff’s department was a little difficult. I called them and they did answer the phone, but they said that I should just email them, that they weren’t giving a statement at that time. But then when I emailed them, that’s when they gave me their statement, but it was a very vague statement. So I’m glad that David got the perspective of the sheriff’s department through the digital article because it was a little hard to do for the video because all I got was a written statement over an email. So, I think that was the hardest part for me. 

Also, another hard part for me was figuring out the legal stuff because I don’t know anything super legal-y or anything about lawsuits really. I mean, I know the basics, but I don’t know enough. So making sure I found someone that knew a lot about this and finding an expert was a little difficult, but the First Amendment group at UGA really got me in contact with someone quickly that was able to meet me over Zoom.

Eberly: Yeah, and especially with any story that involves pending litigation, reporters are so open to libel, and that’s one thing. I’ve had a couple of stories where Professor V is like, “You can’t try and contextualize what they say, in a statement or a lawsuit, because that can come back and really hurt you. You have to say exactly what they said. No narrower terms, no broader terms. If they use a verb, you don’t expand upon the verb, you use the exact verb because you’re risking your entire newsroom at that point, with possible libel litigation.

Savan: Yeah, for sure. And I know that’s a sticky situation. I mean, as journalism students, that’s kind of hard to navigate. So I was very surprised when I saw this article come out because, I mean, navigating legal speak alone as a journalist is hard enough, but then navigating pending litigation and trying to get an interview through pending litigation is also crazy. I saw that you did end up talking with someone from the bookstore. Did you find that they couldn’t say a lot or that they were giving shorter answers just because it’s pending litigation?

Bertsch: Well, there’s two things. One is that the bookstore’s owner, the one who gave me the press release, she said she wasn’t going to speak on it because she didn’t know enough about legal stuff and she didn’t want to get them in trouble. So that’s why actually their operations manager spoke because he was the one who knew more about legal stuff, and what he could and could not say. So that was one thing. 

And then the other thing was, I kept asking, “Why is this happening? I’m really just trying to understand why would the jail feel the need to do this?” Just a lot of “why” questions, and he couldn’t answer a lot of things related to what he thought was the reason why they were doing it. Just because he’s like, “I can’t speak on their behalf,” which totally makes sense. But he’s like, “I can’t even really give my opinion yet, to speak on what I think is happening.” I don’t know if that makes sense. But so I had a lot of trouble getting the “why” out. But yeah, I think those are my biggest struggles. But once you kind of figure out what they can say, you can kind of go upon that. You can keep adding with that and try to get more information from that point of view.

Savan: That’s interesting that he was — not dodging those questions, but that he knew what he could and couldn’t say. And I mean, those are questions that you have to ask, but that’s interesting. So I mean, it seems like you had a really good conversation with him. So was there a specific quote, or something general that just didn’t make it into the final version? Whether that was in the video, or in the text?

Bertsch: Well, maybe this is something that he said, but I wish I could have expanded more on it in the video, but I think I did a fine enough job. But just talking more about how these big companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are not giving these smaller companies an opportunity. I wish I could have gotten a perspective from them as well, on what they would think about something like this. So it’s not exactly a quote, but that’s something that I wish I would have had more time to do more research on and reach out to more people about.

Savan: Kind of like the bigger retailer side of the story.

Bertsch: Yeah, definitely the bigger retailer.

Savan: Yeah, that would be really interesting. But I mean, with timelines and stuff that’s super hard. 

Bertsch: It can also only be a minute in 30 seconds, which is so hard.

Eberly: Also, in kind of looking back on everything now — you know, hindsight’s 20/20. But I think something else we — I guess neither of us thought of in the moment was is looking at policies for other large county jails. Like Fulton County Jail is one of the largest in the state, look there and compare to some of the other ones. That would have probably given a better perspective of whether this is an anomaly or whether similar things are going on across the state, and this is a statewide issue.

Savan: Yeah, again, hindsight’s 20/20. I feel like both of those things could be a follow-up article. But I mean, yeah, when you only have a minute and 30 seconds, or a 500 word article, there’s not a lot that you can do. And, you know, a couple days. Which brings me to my next question: What was the timeline? So when did you start the story, and when did it have to be published?

Bertsch: I got the press release that Monday, and then I scheduled my interviews that Tuesday, and then I did my stand-up and all of my B-roll that Wednesday morning. And then we put it on air at 5 p.m. So that Wednesday.

Eberly: Yeah, I don’t remember how it got brought up. I think it was actually the digital content person, Carly, who was working with me, because we were trying really hard to churn out as much as we could on social media and whatnot. And Lucy was just, she had already done all of her due diligence with just sitting in there at, like, noon. And we were just looking at each other, we were like “Oh, why don’t we just put this on the website?”  So, the decision to do that probably happened at like 1 or something, but we also had all this other social media stuff. I think we ended up putting out like four or five posts and some graphic stuff across the platforms. So I worked on a couple of those, and then basically just spent the rest of the day focusing on this article. And I don’t remember what time exactly it was published, but it was probably published at 5, the same time it went live.

Savan: Yeah, interesting. I saw that, I mean, this was published five days after the lawsuit was even filed. So I didn’t know if it was a one-day turnaround, but it sounds like it was three or four days.
Bertsch: We honestly could have done the story on Monday if I could have, if he could have done an interview on Monday. Because the turnaround at Newsource is like, if you get a story that day, you are turning in at 5. You are doing all your B-roll, all your stand-up. This one was a little bit prepared more in advance, in my opinion. I don’t know if you think that, David, but I felt like it was. 

Eberly: Oh, no, no, 100%. I didn’t know the timeline you were on. I honestly thought you did all of it in a day. But no, that’s a lot. You know, we talked with all each other in class, you know. We all are pretty aware of the timelines that we’re all usually on. 

Bertsch: I just realized one of my interviews — just because I want to get the facts right — one of my interviews was on Tuesday, and the other one was that Wednesday at 2 p.m., which is actually when our scripts are due, but I was like, “I can’t turn it in until after I have this interview done.” And then I didn’t get the sheriff’s department statement until 3 p.m. or something.

Eberly: Yeah, that was a big thing. I remember sitting there talking to you. I was like, “You need to get that statement.”

Bertsch: I was trying; they kept saying no comment, but then finally they gave me that little quick statement. 

Savan: That’s hectic, first of all — my goodness, just trying to coordinate with the sheriff’s department. I can imagine that was very frustrating, just getting no comment over and over and then getting a text statement, which you can’t put in the video. So what was the most challenging part of this piece? And we might have already covered it. Was it something that we’ve already talked about? Or was it something else?
Bertsch: I think for me, the most challenging part was making sure that I got everything legally correct. I was just really worried that I was going to say something wrong on there. That’s why I was really happy that I got that lady through the First Amendment clinic because as a journalist, you really need to get the facts, obviously. But when it comes to legal stuff, I just feel like there’s a little more pressure, so I think that’s what I struggled with.

Eberly: I think for me, on the digital side, the biggest thing was — you know, like I kind of said, it’s more of a thing where you’re trying to make it as objective as you can and try and eliminate the characters because this is a legal issue. And I don’t know, but I’m assuming that it could potentially have repercussions across the state, if there’s similar, I guess rules in county jails. And I feel like most people, there’s some kind of inherent bias when they read stuff about individuals who are incarcerated. I think there’s a group of people who probably think these people don’t deserve rights, and there’s a group of people who still believe that these are still human beings. And you’re really toeing the line of, you know, you’re trying to make it as objective as you can and not push one agenda or the other, regardless of how you may feel personally.

Savan: Yeah, I can imagine that handling the legal side and making sure that you’re not making yourself vulnerable to a libel suit. And staying objective in all this was very, very hard. But what was your favorite part of writing and making the story?

Bertsch: I think my favorite part, which is also my least favorite part, is working on the legal aspect because it was kind of exciting. Even though I haven’t done a legal case before, so I thought that was interesting. And it was also interesting that it was local. I feel like a lot of people have legal cases that they can write about, but getting a local perspective on it is hard, so that was fun.

Eberly: For me, the most fun thing about this is that for once, it was something where I had all the pieces to the puzzle, and I just had to put the puzzle together. I mean, that’s my favorite part of journalism is just once you have all the pieces, just putting it together into something that makes sense and is impactful to an audience. I know Lucy did a lot of the heavy lifting, but it was fun for me to come in on the back end and try and put it all together for people to read.

Savan: I think you guys did a really great job. I can see how this would be a really fun story to work on. We read about book bans in other states. I think one of you mentioned this earlier; we read about them all the time. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve never had one this close to home, so this story is so interesting to me. So that being said, what do you want readers to take away from this story?

Bertsch: This sounds so cheesy, but that you matter. David’s like, “That sounds terrible, Lucy.” But, it’s kind of true. I want the local people to know that their businesses matter, too.

Eberly: I think for me, while I know that this is currently alleged. These are accusations, and we don’t know the whole story yet, but social issues are everywhere. There’s a lot of social justice issues that go unseen because they just line in these little cracks that no one’s ever looked under. And if you see it, say something because that’s the only way that we can improve as a country and make sure that everyone has the rights that they deserve living in this country.

Savan: Yeah, for sure. To Lucy’s point, I think that it’s really interesting that it is such a small bookstore, and they are making waves with this. So I think that’s really, really cool.

Bertsch: Even though it’s still in the works — so we don’t know who’s right or wrong — even if it doesn’t go their way, just that they could be able to get this out there.

Eberly: Just raising awareness of a potential issue.

Bertsch: Yeah.

Savan: Yeah, it’s starting a conversation around the rights of incarcerated people. 

Bertsch: Mm-hmm.

Savan: I know you guys are both very busy with Grady Newsource, so I’ll let you go. But I very much appreciate you guys talking with me. I really enjoyed this story, and I was really hoping that someone would cover it. I didn’t think that anyone actually would because of the legal aspect of it. But yeah, I was very excited to see this story. So yeah, again, thank you for talking with me.

Bertsch: Thank you for choosing this story.

Chloe Savan is a graduate student in the journalism program at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.


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