The arrest of people reporting news should raise eyebrows, especially when they're covering the conduct of police and other agents of the state. The stakes increase when those journalists aren't even allowed to raise the First Amendment as a defense. Such is the case after the widely condemned conviction for trespassing of two reporters in Asheville, North Carolina, while they covered police clearing a homeless encampment in a public park.
When Monitoring Cops is a Crime
"On Friday, June 16, Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams confirmed a Superior Court jury found Asheville Blade journalists Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit guilty of misdemeanor second-degree trespass from an incident back in December 2021," reports local ABC News affiliate WLOS. "The two journalists were arrested while covering a police sweep of a homeless encampment at Aston Park and the protest that followed on Christmas night in 2021. The basis for their arrests was that the park closed at 10 p.m., so Bliss and Coit were charged with trespassing."
This was actually the second trial in the case after Bliss and Coit were earlier found guilty by Judge J. Calvin Hill who dismissed the importance of journalism to the circumstances at hand. The defendants immediately appealed to a jury trial, resulting in the June 16 verdict.
"Officers are not entitled to operate without press and public scrutiny just because it's dark out," responded Seth Stern, director of advocacy at the Freedom of the Press Foundation. "The Constitution requires that journalists be given sufficient access to public land to report the news, no matter the time."
"The two journalists should never have been on trial," agreed Katherine Jacobsen of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "They were performing a public service and recording police activity. 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."
The Feds May Have Something to Say
Ironically, the same day Bliss and Coit were found guilty of trespass for covering police conduct, the U.S. Justice Department criticized Minneapolis for similar violations of press freedom.
"The First Amendment requires that any restrictions on when, where, and how reporters gather information 'leave open ample alternative channels' for gathering the news," the Investigation of the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department notes in part. "Blanket enforcement of dispersal orders and curfews against press violates this principle because they foreclose the press from reporting about what happens after the dispersal or curfew is issued, including how police enforce those orders."
That report was issued by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and United States Attorney's Office District of Minnesota Civil Division as a follow-up to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop and the resulting protests and riots.
Police told the court they knew that the defendants were acting as journalists at the park—Bliss, at least, had a press badge. In court, Lt. Michael McClanahan dismissed the relevance of that role. Judge Tommy Davis specifically precluded the jury from considering the First Amendment as a defense for the reporters' presence in the park. That may well leave ample ground for Coit and Bliss to appeal since the Justice Department report suggests there is plenty of room for higher courts to decide quite differently.
Arrest as Retaliation?
Defense attorney Ben Scales argued that police and District Attorney Todd Williams acted out of hostility towards the defendants and the Asheville Blade, the publication they represent. The Blade has not only long been critical of police, it is a self-described "leftist local news co-op" where the staff sport enough dyed hair and pronouns of choice to set a hard political and cultural divide between themselves and most law enforcement. Defendant Bliss is a trans woman whose treatment by police regarding gender status was an additional issue during the trial.
"The Asheville Police Department's hostility to journalists — or anyone monitoring them — is well-documented," the Blade charged in a response to the guilty verdicts. "In an official September 2020 city survey APD officers listed 'no scrutiny from media' and 'knowing your decisions will not be scrutinized' as top priorities. After Blade reporters documented a similar April 2021 raid on an Aston Park houseless camp and criticized the police in our coverage, APD commanders and high-level city officials forwarded around an email declaring our organization something to 'fight back' against."
Defense attorney Scales also has a past history with District Attorney Williams. Running on a platform that included not prosecuting nonviolent drug offenses, he challenged the incumbent in 2018 for the Democratic nomination, losing with 47 percent of the vote to Williams's 53 percent.
After their arrest, Coit and Bliss were forced to surrender their phones to the police for searches under warrant. Scales has raised that as an additional issue, since it potentially violates North Carolina's quarter-century-old shield law which broadly protects those engaged in gathering news from efforts to force them to turn over information to the authorities.
"The North Carolina shield law is among the two strongest laws of its kind in the country—only Nevada's unqualified, 'absolute' reporter's privilege is stronger," according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Separately, the ACLU of North Carolina is challenging Asheville for flat-out banning people who run afoul of the authorities, including Bliss and Coit, from its parks.
"The lawsuit alleges that the Park Ban Policy and the bans issued to Plaintiffs violate their due process rights by taking away their access to public parks and their ability to conduct their job responsibilities without meaningful notice or hearing," the organization announced in April. "The bans also impinge on Plaintiffs' exercise of their First Amendment right to assembly. "
Watching the Cops Helps Us All
Of course, the convictions of two Asheville Blade journalists arrested while covering the clearing of a homeless encampment comes as such pop-up slums and their associated problems have become concerns in many cities around the country. But while public fatigue with street people may limit sympathy for them and their supporters, people have the right to monitor and report on police conduct, and they serve an important purpose in doing so.
"Coit and Bliss have already filed a notice of appeal," notes the Freedom of the Press Foundation. "The appellate court will review, among other evidence, body camera footage showing that police arrested the journalists so that they would not be able to record the evictions."
They may not like it, but authorities behave better when they know members of the public have the right to keep an eye on them.