Prosecutors in Asheville, North Carolina, are insisting on pressing forward with the prosecution of two journalists for daring to document a police sweep of a homeless encampment.
Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were arrested and charged for trespassing on Christmas night, 2021. Their crime? They stood on a rise above the scene in a city park after the park’s 10 p.m. closing time. By the admission of all, the journalists could not have seen the eviction, must less filmed it, from a public sidewalk or lower down in the park. They were where they needed to be to document this story.
On April 19, Bliss and Coit were finally convicted of trespassing in a bench trial. They are now exercising their rights to appeal their case before a jury. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which maintains data on press freedom violations, reveals that this is only the fourth such trial in the United States in the last five years. The Tracker has no record of a journalist being sentenced to jail or probation for trespassing since it began documenting the arrests of journalists in 2017.
Concerned about the chilling effect such prosecutions have on a free press, Protect The 1st joined with a coalition of civil liberties organizations, in a letter organized by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, to protest these prosecutions to the Asheville city attorney, the police chief, and the Buncombe County district attorney. The letter states that “a government interested in transparency should not want to set a precedent that journalists cannot cover newsworthy events, in plain sight and on public land, at night.
“The news does not keep regular business hours and citizens are entitled to know what police are doing at any hour.”
The actions of local officials and statements by police, caught on body-cam footage, show no love lost for The Asheville Blade. It is easy to see why. The Blade advertises itself as “a leftist local news co-op focusing on hard-hitting journalism, in-depth investigation and sharp views from our city.” The Blade’s critical eye may make it the bête noir of city and law enforcement officials. But having a point of view doesn’t make this news outlet any less of a journalistic enterprise than the National Review or The Nation.
“The continued prosecution of the two Asheville Blade reporters sends a message that authorities can cherry-pick who qualifies as a journalist based on personal preference,” the letter concludes.
Protect The 1st will follow the case and report on the outcome of the appeal.