Kelan Lyons, NC Newsline
Reprinted by permission from NCNewsline.
Two Asheville, N.C., reporters were convicted of trespassing in a jury trial in Buncombe County last week, a conviction scorned by press-freedom advocates across the U.S.
“The two journalists should never have been on trial. They were performing a public service and recording police activity,” said Katherine Jacobsen, U.S. and Canada program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement. “Their conviction is a blatant violation of their First Amendment rights, and their convictions set an unsettling precedent for journalists in Asheville and the nation.”
Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit, two reporters for the self-described leftist news publication The Asheville Blade, were charged with misdemeanor trespassing in 2021 for reporting on police clearing protestors and houseless people from Aston Park on Christmas night. The park had closed for the evening, and police repeatedly told those in attendance to disperse. Coit and Bliss were the first ones arrested. Police body-cam footage from that night shows an officer suggested arresting them first because they were videotaping what the police were doing.
“We don’t have secret police in the United States,” Seth Stern, the director of advocacy at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement. “Officers are not entitled to operate without press and public scrutiny just because it’s dark out. The Constitution requires that journalists be given sufficient access to public land to report the news, no matter the time.”
Bliss and Coit were convicted by a district judge in a bench trial in April. Prosecutors presented the charges as an open-and-shut case of trespassing. Law enforcement had told the journalists to get off the park grounds and onto the sidewalk, a command they did not obey. That, prosecutors argued, was trespassing. A police officer testified during that bench trial that, “I didn’t care whether they were reporters or not. It meant nothing to me.”
The reporters appealed in a week-long jury trial last week. Thomas Davis, a Republican Superior Court judge from Rutherford County, presided over the trial. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that Davis told attorneys at a June 14 hearing that the jury would not decide whether the reporters’ First Amendment rights had been violated. Later, he orally denied their motion to dismiss the case, with a written ruling to follow.
In an interview with NC Newsline, Coit said that Davis’ decision made it hard for the reporters’ attorney, Ben Scales, to put on his case. In court filings, Scales argued for a continuance and asked the court’s help in enforcing his subpoenas. He’d intended to argue that police knew who the reporters were, and arrested them because of their criticism of law enforcement, as journalists for a news outlet that believes in police abolition. (Prosecutors, meanwhile, accused Scales of making the case seem more complicated than it is, calling it “relatively straightforward” in court filings.)
But with Davis’ ruling not to dismiss the case, Coit said, the judge made it harder for Scales to make that case in court.
“Our defense was essentially wrapped up in the fact that it was a constitutional argument. That’s what the whole thing is,” Coit said. “We were there. It was after 10 p.m. There was not a whole lot of defense there.”
Bliss and Coit were fined $100 and ordered to pay court costs. The reporters will appeal again, this time to the Court of Appeals.
“Unless the Appellate Court sees somewhere a mistake was made, this may be it,” Coit said.
At one point in the trial, Coit said, Davis asked for case law, precedent for which to base his decision on whether to dismiss the case.
“But there’s no case law because these cases never make it to prosecution,” they said. “They get dropped.”
Take, Coit said, the case of Dan Hesse, a reporter for Mountain Xpress arrested in 2016. Hesse had been covering a sit-in at the Asheville Police Department after officers killed a black city resident. The District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges a week after Hesse’s arrest.
But now there is case law, Coit said: The Blade case. Prosecutors can cite their conviction when they want to limit the public’s access to information.
It starts with the small outlets like the Blade, Coit said, the ones that can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on attorneys’ fees and who don’t have the backing of major news networks.
“Eventually it gets used on the big guys, the guys who think they can defend themselves and they’re not going to have to worry about this,” Coit said. “The next time a D.A. wants to prosecute a journalist who reports on the ground, they’re gonna have this to use. And it might stick.”
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