Tempest over a protest

Barron Segar's war with WSB gets personal

At least twice
a week, Barron Segar parks his Acura Infiniti just across the street from WSB-TV's Midtown headquarters. There, in a spot designated for two-hour parking, he unfurls two cardboard signs. He places one above his dashboard, pointing out through the windshield. He affixes the other with tape to the outside of his driver's side windows. Scrawled on the signs in thick black marker are the words: "Shame on WSB."
For a man who describes himself as disliking confrontation, Segar's strategy of turning his car into a protest kiosk makes a certain sense. The world cruising by can learn his opinions of Atlanta's dominant TV station — if not his actual reasons behind those opinions — and he can still make his meetings and social obligations. Call it the lazy man's picket.

And, Segar can also maintain a degree of anonymity. Or so he thought.

Over the past few weeks, Segar's beef with WSB has gotten personal. What started as an exercise in free speech has now turned into a question of privacy rights. His claim? WSB has been snooping into his private business, in a very unsavory fashion. To Segar, the whole thing stinks. Imagine — a news organization, ostensibly dedicated to free speech, sneaking around to check up on a disgruntled viewer.

Segar first called CL two weeks ago, explaining that he was avoiding contacting the Atlanta Journal-Constitution because it was owned by the same company that owned WSB. (We didn't have the heart to tell him that that same company, Cox, holds a 25 percent stake in CL. But hell, it's only 25 percent, so screw 'em.)

In any case, this is his story:

Last January, WSB reporter Roby Chavez left the station after his contract wasn't renewed. Two months before, he had announced publicly that he was HIV-positive. WSB's decision not to renew Chavez's contract came before his announcement, Chavez says.

Still, Chavez says today, "Of all the places I've worked in 16 years, the atmosphere at WSB was probably the most uncomfortable that I had ever felt." Chavez says that more than once, he heard offensive comments about gays at the station, but that when he raised the issue with management, his concerns weren't dealt with. Chavez now is freelancing for WTTG-TV, a Fox affiliate in Washington, although he still maintains a residence in Atlanta.

Segar's full-time job is regional director of UNICEF. But he's also a board member of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and is, he says, "passionate" about HIV issues. So two months ago, he decided to turn his car into a rolling picket. He even called City Hall beforehand to make sure he wouldn't be breaking any laws or ordinances. No problem, he was told.

On June 4, he parked his car across the street from WSB. The next day, Segar received a voicemail at home from a neighbor whom he didn't know, a man named Denton Harris. Harris, former president of the local neighborhood association, says he had received a call from David LaMothe, the director of operations for WSB, who asked Harris if he knew Segar. Harris didn't, but said he'd call Segar.

Says Harris: "I called [Segar] and talked to him and said, 'Barry, I believe in sitting down with somebody face to face if you got a problem.'"

Yet even now, Segar and WSB officials have yet to speak to each other. Perhaps if they did, Segar might find out the answer to the key question: How did WSB find out that he was their neighborhood protester?

Segar has this hypothesis: WSB called the cops, who ran the tags and passed the information on to the station. This theory is plausible, considering that Segar says Harris told him that's just what happened.

But Harris tells CL that he doesn't recall specifically if LaMothe told him how the station got the information. "I just assumed he got it that way," Harris says.

It's an important distinction, especially considering that WSB isn't saying anything about the matter. LaMothe didn't return calls and Steve Riley, director of creative services and station spokesman, offered only a terse "no comment."

State law is pretty clear on the question of who's allowed access to your motor vehicle registration information. TV stations aren't on the list. Still, Gerry Weber of the Georgia American Civil Liberties Union says any violation of privacy would land at the feet of Atlanta police, and not WSB.

"It might constitute a legal claim," Weber says. "The reason is, Georgia has a very broad constitutional protection for privacy."

Suitably alarmed, Segar filed an Open Records request and found that, sure enough, his tags were run by Atlanta police on the evening of June 4, the day before his phone call from Harris. He has since announced he is filing a formal complaint with the department's Office of Professional Standards, writing in a letter that the actions taken in this matter were "not only unethical and unorthodox, but they are also criminal."

Besides the complaint, Segar also plans to ask the ACLU if it's interested in taking up his cause. Debbie Seagraves, executive director, wouldn't comment on this specific case, although she did say "any time a police jurisdiction or an agency assists a private entity in abusing information and violating the privacy of any individual, they're wrong and they're violating the Constitution."

Says Segar: "As a general rule, I don't like confrontation. But I also speak up for things. Elton told me one time that you've got to speak up for things that you believe are wrong. I speak up for things I'm passionate about. And I'm passionate about my freedom and I'm passionate about men, women and children living with HIV."

The whole affair makes Harris, who was merely trying to referee a dispute between WSB and his neighbor, chuckle. "I know guys who used to see a pretty girl in a car, get a tag number and call the Capitol and get her name. They'd call and say, 'I got your tag number, I want to see you, baby.'

"Of course, that was years ago." steve.fennessy@creativeloafing.com