Asheville journalists

Body camera footage showing Asheville Blade's journalist Matilda Bliss' 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.

(Photo: Freedom of the Press Foundation)

Free Press Advocates Slam 'Blatantly Unconstitutional' Conviction of North Carolina Reporters

"Reporters shouldn't be arrested for doing their jobs," said one First Amendment advocacy group.

Press freedom and civil liberties defenders on Friday condemned what legal experts called the unconstitutional conviction of two Asheville, North Carolina journalists for violating a public park curfew while covering the police eviction of unhoused people on Christmas night 2021.

An Asheville jury deliberated for two hours following a weeklong trial in the case of Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit, who were found guilty of misdemeanor second-degree trespass for remaning in Aston Park after closing time. The journalists were ordered to pay $100 each plus court costs, the Asheville Citizen Times reports.

"We don't have secret police in the United States. Officers are not entitled to operate without press and public scrutiny just because it's dark out," Freedom of the Press Foundation advocacy director Seth Stern said in a statement. "The Constitution requires that journalists be given sufficient access to public land to report the news, no matter the time."

Katherine Jacobsen, U.S. and Canada program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that "we are gravely concerned by the jury's guilty verdict in the trial of Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit."

"The two journalists should never have been on trial. They were performing a public service and recording police activity," Jacobsen added. "Their conviction is a blatant violation of their First Amendment rights [and sets] an unsettling precedent for journalists in Asheville and the nation."

"This decision is a serious blow to press freedom in North Carolina."

Despite informing the Asheville Police Department (APD) that they would working in the park, where many unhoused people live, on the night of December 25, 2021, the journalists were arrested. In police bodycam footage of the incident, one APD officer can be heard discussing arresting the reporters "because they're videotaping."

Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Tommy Davis instructed the jury not to consider the constitutionality of the charges against Coit and Bliss and denied their motion for dismissal on First Amendment grounds.

"In your opening statements you seemed to imply to the jury that they were going to decide whether or not their constitutional rights were violated," the judge told the defendants, according to the Citizen Times. "They are not going to decide that. I am going to decide that."

The Citizen Times reported:

Defense attorney Ben Scales argued in opening statements the two reporters... were singled out because of their profession and their criticism of the police through their self-described leftist publication the Asheville Blade. He also said Bliss, a transgender woman, was misgendered by being called "sir" and treated as a man.

"These reporters were unfairly, and most importantly, unconstitutionally, targeted in order to silence them and insulate the police from scrutiny," Scales said.

Prosecutor Robert McRight repeatedly mocked the defendants, aspersing their journalism and political views, and suggesting that they are anti-American.

"We have apple pie, baseball, and people hating the government," he quipped, according to the Citizen Times.

The case drew international attention, with actor John Cusack—a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation—tweeting his support for the journalists.

Bliss and Coit were convicted of the same trespass charges in April and ordered to pay $25 each plus court costs. They then appealed to the Superior Court. They will now take their case to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

That's not all. According to the Blade:

Documents later obtained by the ACLU also revealed that Coit and Bliss were secretly banned from all public parks for a year, due to "camping in Aston Park refusing to leave," something neither was ever even accused of. Neither reporter was ever informed. These bans meant they could have been arrested simply for trying to cover a city council meeting in-person. City Hall's currently being sued by the ACLU for their park ban policy, which is blatantly unconstitutional.

"Coit and Bliss had a constitutionally protected right to cover a police action," asserted Clayton Weimers, executive director of Reporters Without Borders' U.S. 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."

The Blade noted tha Coit was previously arrested while doing their job. In August 2020, they were covering the racial justice protests in the wake of police killings of Black people including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor when they were dragged from their car and arrested by APD officers.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.