FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Freedom of the Press Foundation director of advocacy Seth Stern issued the following statement on today’s trespassing conviction of Asheville Blade journalists Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss for documenting a homeless encampment sweep at a public park after closing time on Christmas night of 2021:
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.
It’s particularly disturbing that the judge reportedly questioned whether Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss are journalists. They literally report for a news outlet, the Asheville Blade. Whether it’s a mainstream outlet or one that public officials like is entirely irrelevant. They’re journalists under any definition of the word and entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment.
The judge also apparently ignored bodycam footage showing police arrested Bliss and Coit before clearing the camp’s residents “because they’re videotaping.” That confirms that police unconstitutionally targeted the press.
Even putting that aside, does the judge really want to set a precedent that journalists need to ignore news happening in plain sight on public land because it’s nighttime? Asheville residents deserve to know what their police department is up to at any hour.
Bliss and Coit were never accused of harming or obstructing police or anyone and it’s ridiculous the case even got to this point. Prosecuting victimless “crimes” by journalists does not serve the interests of justice and does not benefit the taxpayers funding the prosecution. And Asheville’s crackdown on free speech doesn’t end with journalists – the same prosecutors are trying mutual aid workers for “felony littering.” Seriously.
We’re glad to hear that Bliss and Coit are appealing to a jury trial under North Carolina procedures. We hope this awful ruling is reversed by citizen jurors who hopefully value the First Amendment more than Asheville police, prosecutors and judges.