More than 45 orgs call to drop charges against Asheville journalists

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Promoting press freedom in the 21st century

Veronica Coit/Asheville Blade

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Last month, an Asheville, North Carolina, judge convicted two journalists of trespassing for doing nothing more than recording police conducting a homeless encampment sweep at a public park on Dec. 25, 2021. The journalists, Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit, are entitled under North Carolina law to a second trial, this time with a jury.

Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) led a coalition of over 45 organizations calling on Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams to drop the prosecution immediately. The letter, sent on World Press Freedom Day, explains that “[t]he journalists should be commended — not tried — for spending Christmas away from their families to perform the public service of documenting important news.”

Signers include everyone from press rights and civil liberties organizations like Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the National Press Club and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), to national media publishers like The Intercept, Penguin Random House, TEGNA and McClatchy.

“This prosecution is both unconstitutional and pointless. The First Amendment prohibits using trespassing laws as a pretext to retaliate against journalists for doing their jobs. And nobody in Asheville stands to benefit from government resources being wasted to criminalize journalism,” said FPF Advocacy Director Seth Stern. “The progressive image the city works to cultivate is further damaged every day the charges aren’t dropped.”

Katherine Jacobsen, U.S. and Canada program coordinator at CPJ, added, “We are gravely concerned about the press freedom implications of the continued prosecution of Asheville Blade reporters Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss. Journalists should not be tried simply for doing their jobs and covering matters of public importance.”

The case has also caught the attention of activist, actor and FPF board member John Cusack, who tweeted that it “should be a national news story. Just because [the journalists] don't work for a mainstream news outlet doesn't mean their First Amendment rights are less important.”

The journalists are not accused of harming or obstructing police, yet Coit was given a suspended prison sentence and probation, while Bliss was fined. Police also extrajudicially banned them from city parks and unlawfully searched Bliss’s phone. Body camera footage, released after a petition filed by FPF, CPJ and the ACLU of North Carolina, shows officers deciding to arrest the journalists before clearing the camp “because they’re videotaping” and wondering aloud if one journalist would “wise up” after the other’s arrest.

You can read the full letter below.

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