Two Asheville, N.C., journalists were convicted of trespassing last week for covering the city’s police presence in a public park, prompting widespread protest from news organizations.
According to NC Newsline and other news outlets, the incident occurred on Christmas night 2021 when journalists Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit recorded police conducting a homeless-encampment sweep in a public park. In April, a local judge convicted them on trespassing charges. Now, they’re seeking a jury trial, as allowed by North Carolina law.
In a news release, Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists announced they were leading “a coalition of over 45 organizations calling on Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams to drop the prosecution immediately.”
The letter, sent on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, stated that “[t]he journalists should be commended — not tried — for spending Christmas away from their families to perform the public service of documenting important news.”
FPF advocacy director Seth Stern called the prosecution “both unconstitutional and pointless” and an effort to intimidate local journalists from doing their jobs.
According to NC Newsline, the two journalists were reporting for the leftist news outlet, the Asheville Blade, when they were arrested after police told them the park was closed at 10 p.m. and they couldn’t enter. The park had become a center of protest over how the city was dealing with its homeless population.
The judge reportedly rejected the arguments that they were doing their jobs as journalists and called it a “plain and simple trespass case,” NC Newsline reported.
“They couldn’t report the news because they broke the law,” Assistant District Attorney Robert McRight said at the court hearing. “There is no special shield that reporters get just because they’re journalists.”
A petition from news organizations and the ACLU forced release of body-camera footage, and the footage reportedly shows officers deciding to arrest the two journalists before any others were arrested in the homeless encampment because they were videotaping.
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