Two local reporters in North Carolina were convicted Wednesday of misdemeanor trespassing after being arrested while covering the clearing of a homeless encampment in a public park in 2021. Press freedom experts say the charges were retaliatory.
Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were arrested December 25, 2021, shortly after the park closed at 10 p.m.
Judge James Calvin Hill said there was no evidence presented to the court that Bliss and Coit were journalists and that he saw this as a “plain and simple trespassing case,” according to local news reports.
The reporters will appeal via a jury trial in Superior Court. The judge offered the reporters an option to not have a criminal record, but they reportedly declined.
“We remain determined to keep fighting. We know all too well that Asheville’s governments run on petty spite and routinely disregard basic rights,” the Blade said in a statement following the decision. “Every reporter, everyone who’s ever criticized any official or cop should find the push to punish our journalists chilling.”
“Matilda, Veronica and our cooperative as a whole are determined to fight on. The issues here are too important not to,” Blade editor David Forbes told VOA after the court ruling.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation called the decision “an awful ruling that will hopefully be reversed.”
Bliss and Coit’s defense team had been aiming to get the charges dismissed, according to Forbes.
“It is ridiculous, under the First Amendment, to arrest journalists who were clearly newsgathering on an issue of public importance,” Forbes told VOA on Wednesday, hours before the reporters were found guilty. “Our reporters are committed to fighting for their rights.”
Bodycam footage released in February after a court petition shows an Asheville police officer suggesting his colleagues arrest the journalists “because they’re videotaping” the police sweep of the homeless encampment.
The footage “proves the reporters were singled out for doing their jobs,” Seth Stern, advocacy director at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said earlier this year. “Police chose to round up journalists before conducting the sweep to stop them from recording.”
The Asheville Police Department did not immediately respond to VOA’s phone calls and an email requesting comment.
In a statement on Tuesday, before the trial began, the Washington-based National Press Club condemned the case as retaliatory and urged prosecutors to drop the charges.
“Journalism is not a crime. No journalist should be arrested for their work. No journalist should be prosecuted for their work. And no journalist should be forced to stand trial simply for doing their job,” Eileen O’Reilly, president of the National Press Club, and Gil Klein, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, said in the statement.
Bliss and Coit’s trial is the fourth trial of journalists for offenses allegedly committed while gathering and reporting news since 2018 in the United States, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that it is unconstitutional to arrest someone in retaliation for exercising First Amendment rights, even if there technically is probable cause for the arrest.
This trial is “another example of legal measures being used as a tactic against the press,” Stern told VOA. “When it happens in one place and there are not consequences, it emboldens other law enforcement officials, other prosecutors to do the same.”
“What public good does it advance to prosecute these people, who were doing nothing but gathering the news — a function that a transparent government should value and encourage?” Stern asked.
“It’s extremely disappointing that Judge James Calvin Hill overlooked the obvious First Amendment problems with convicting journalists for recording police conducting a homeless encampment sweep at a public park,” Stern told VOA in a statement after the decision was announced.
Over the past few years, strategic lawsuits — both civil and criminal — against journalists have become an increasingly common way to target and retaliate against journalists around the world, analysts say.
The arrests and trial have had a negative impact on the Blade’s operations, according to Forbes.
“We’re a small cooperative of trans and nonbinary journalists,” and the trial “has strained our resources, strained our ability to function,” Forbes said.
The trial may also have concerning implications that extend beyond the city of Asheville, Forbes said.
“It’s both very local and has much larger importance,” Forbes told VOA. “We’re seeing this pattern around the country, and I think it should be disturbing not just for journalists but for the public as a whole.
“These kinds of problems tend to start small. They go after smaller publications, more radical publications first, but they never stop there,” Forbes said.