FPF urges court to release bodycam footage of journalists’ arrests

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Two Asheville journalists arrested while covering an eviction of a homeless encampment are set to stand trial on Jan. 25.

Courtesy of Veronica Coit/Asheville Blade

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Two Asheville, North Carolina journalists are scheduled to go on trial on Jan. 25 for documenting a controversial Christmas night eviction of a homeless encampment. The public still has not seen body camera footage of their arrests.

That’s why Freedom of the Press Foundation partnered with the ACLU of North Carolina and the Committee to Protect Journalists to petition a North Carolina court for the full public release of the recordings.

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“It’s a matter of the highest public concern when authorities not only arrest journalists but put them on trial for attempting to report the news,” said Seth Stern, advocacy director for Freedom of the Press Foundation. “The public should be able to see for themselves whether police retaliated against the press for critical coverage. And if police did nothing wrong, then they should want the footage released to clear their names.”

Authorities have never claimed the journalists, Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss of the Asheville Blade, endangered anyone or obstructed the eviction. But police nonetheless arrested them for remaining at the park after its 10 p.m. closing time. They also seized Bliss’ phone — an act that the petition said “raises red flags that authorities intended not to enforce curfews but to suppress newsgathering.”

“At stake in this incident is public trust, freedom of the press, and police accountability,” said Muneeba S. Talukder, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina. “We know that, especially now, all police conduct is of great public concern. The need for transparency is even more pressing in this case because the journalists were arrested while gathering and attempting to share news on the eviction of unhoused people from a city park. Arrests of journalists who are gathering and reporting news is and should be rare in a nation that values the freedom of press.”

As Stern previously noted in an op-ed for the Asheville Citizen Times, “No decent journalist would ignore newsworthy official conduct, in plain sight and on public land, just because it’s dark out. And no government that values transparency would expect journalists to do so.”

The Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional to target someone for arrest in retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights even if there is, technically, probable cause for the arrest. Legalities aside, though, the petition explains that the public should be allowed to “decide for themselves … whether prosecuting journalists for merely documenting police conducting a newsworthy operation at a public park is a wise use of their money.”

The petition notes that, according to FPF’s U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have only been three trials of journalists arrested in the course of newsgathering since 2018.

North Carolina law does not consider body camera footage a public record and requires members of the public to petition a court for its release. In most other states the authorities bear the burden of proving that footage should not be released; the public does not need to convince a judge that it should be.

The court will next schedule a hearing to consider arguments from the petitioners, as well as prosecutors and police, and determine whether to release the footage.

You can read the full petition below.

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