FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: An Asheville, North Carolina, police officer is shown suggesting his colleagues arrest journalists “because they’re videotaping” in new body camera footage of a homeless encampment sweep.
Police then arrested Asheville Blade journalists Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit. They’re scheduled for trial on April 19 on trespassing charges because they documented the sweep from a public park shortly after its 10 p.m. closing time on Dec. 25, 2021.
Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) Advocacy Director Seth Stern said the footage, released on Feb. 27, “proves the reporters were singled out for doing their jobs. Police chose to round up journalists before conducting the sweep to stop them from recording. Targeting journalists is a clear violation of the First Amendment.”
Asheville released the footage following a court petition filed by FPF, the ACLU of North Carolina and the Committee to Protect Journalists. North Carolina law requires a judge to authorize the public release of body camera footage.
“Asheville cultivates a progressive image but the actions depicted in this footage tell another story,” Stern said. “There are few practices less progressive than prosecuting journalists. It’s common in authoritarian regimes but rare in the United States. It’s bad enough when rogue officers arrest journalists but the ongoing prosecution means the mayor, city council and District Attorney all endorse these unconstitutional arrests.”
According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Bliss and Coit’s trial will be only the fourth trial of journalists for offenses allegedly committed while gathering and reporting news since 2018. Arrests of journalists are also rare but in most instances authorities don’t proceed to trial. Authorities in Ohio dropped charges after Evan Lambert of NewsNation was arrested at a press conference earlier this month. In January, the mayor of Phoenix personally apologized for the detainment of Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Rabouin.
The footage, Stern said, confirms the journalists recorded the sweep from a distance and did not obstruct police. They’re not charged with any offense except trespassing.
Although the city has maintained that it’s Constitutionally permissible to prosecute journalists under “generally applicable laws,” the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held last week that a “state may not harness generally applicable laws to abridge speech without first ensuring the First Amendment would allow it.” The Court therefore barred North Carolina from enforcing a trespassing law to restrict newsgathering.
And even if the Constitution did permit prosecution of journalists, that doesn’t mean it’s a wise use of taxpayer funds. “These journalists did not cause any harm to anyone. They were just doing their jobs. The district attorney should prosecute real crimes, not journalism,” Stern said.
“Taking the City's position to its logical extension, if police had opened fire on the encampment sweep after the park closed, would the Buncombe County district attorney still prosecute journalists for documenting it? There’s no asterisk after the First Amendment that says it only applies during daylight hours,” he added.