Press freedom and civil liberties orgs condemn conviction of Asheville journalists

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Body camera footage showing Asheville Blade journalist Matilda Bliss's press pass. Bliss and colleague Veronica Coit were convicted of trespassing for recording police evicting unhoused people from a public park shortly after the park's closing time.

Press freedom and civil liberties groups nationwide expressed their disappointment at the conviction by a jury of Asheville Blade journalists Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit for violating a park curfew by recording police evicting a homeless encampment on Christmas night of 2021.

“We don’t have secret police in the United States,” said Seth Stern, Director of Advocacy at Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF). “Officers are not entitled to operate without press and public scrutiny just because it’s dark out. The Constitution requires that journalists be given sufficient access to public land to report the news, no matter the time.”

The judge reportedly instructed the jury not to consider the constitutionality of the charges against Coit and Bliss. He orally denied their motion to dismiss on First Amendment grounds (a written ruling will follow). He was wrong, as the Department of Justice made clear the same day as the verdict in its report on its investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department: “Blanket enforcement of dispersal orders and curfews against press violates [the First Amendment] because they foreclose the press from reporting.”

“We are gravely concerned by the jury’s guilty verdict in the trial of Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit,” said Katherine Jacobsen, U.S. and Canada program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The two journalists should never have been on trial. They were performing a public service and recording police activity. Their conviction is a blatant violation of their First Amendment rights, and their convictions set an unsettling precedent for journalists in Asheville and the nation.”

Danielle Coffey, News/Media Alliance President & CEO, stated, “It is of utmost importance that we protect journalists against being prosecuted for simply doing their jobs. Anything less jeopardizes the vital reporting on matters of public concern.”

Muneeba Talukder, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina, added: “The conviction of Asheville Blade journalists Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit for trespassing highlights a concerning trend that undermines press freedom and civil liberties. It is disheartening to witness the government's attempt to suppress journalists' ability to report the news and hold those in power accountable. The Constitution guarantees journalists sufficient access to public spaces to fulfill their crucial role in society, regardless of the time or circumstances. We must recognize that by punishing journalists for simply doing their jobs, we restrict people's access to information therefore hindering their ability to stay informed about important matters.”

Coit and Bliss have already filed a notice of appeal. The appellate court will review, among other evidence, body camera footage showing that police arrested the journalists so that they would not be able to record the evictions.

“Coit and Bliss had a constitutionally protected right to cover a police action,” said Clayton Weimers, Executive Director of RSF’s US Bureau. “In fact, it is their professional obligation as journalists to perform this vital watchdog function in order to hold government actors accountable. This decision is a serious blow to press freedom in North Carolina.”

“Even if Coit and Bliss eventually win, the people of Asheville and surrounding Buncombe County have already lost,” Stern said. “They gain absolutely nothing from their government weaponizing curfew laws to punish journalists for doing their jobs. The journalists have never been accused of harming anyone and should have been commended, not tried on the taxpayers’ dime, for spending their Christmas attempting to inform the public.”

Almost 50 organizations, led by FPF and CPJ, previously sent a letter to Asheville authorities urging them to drop the case.

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