Opinion: Prosecutors should drop retaliatory charges against Asheville journalists

Seth Stern
Seth Stern

Authoritarian regimes often put journalists on trial for doing their jobs, but it’s rare in the United States. Freedom of the Press Foundation’s U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reports three such trials since 2018. The fourth is scheduled for Jan. 25 in Asheville.

The defendants are Asheville Blade reporters Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss. They were arrested for alleged trespassing on Dec. 25, 2021, while photographing a police eviction of a homeless encampment at Aston Park. Police also seized Bliss’ phone.

It was in the public interest for journalists to cover the encampment sweep. Asheville residents rely on a free press to document interactions between the powerful (police officers) and the powerless (unhoused people).

The homelessness crisis has sparked national and local public policy debates. Two days after the arrests, the Citizen-Times reported calls for a moratorium on camp clearings due to COVID-19 (the evictions violated CDC guidelines) and the cold. The arrests also reportedly led to police policy changes.

More:Asheville police to implement new homelessness policy following camp removals, arrests

Those details aside, media scrutiny of law enforcement actions always benefits the public. There is not enough space to list the abuses of police power brought to light by professional and citizen journalists in recent years.

In contrast, prosecuting Coit or Bliss advances no public interest. They are not charged with having harmed, threatened or endangered anyone. No one alleges their newsgathering obstructed police actions. And police officers who consider transparency in and of itself to be obstructive likely should be obstructed.

It seems like the sole purpose of these charges is to send a message to the journalists who told Asheville residents how their police department chose to spread Christmas cheer.

More:Police bodycams, walking kids to school: Citizen Times stories with impact in 2022

Apparently authorities claim Coit and Bliss stayed past the park’s 10 p.m. closing time. Do Asheville police handcuff dog walkers in public parks after hours? When’s the last time late-night stargazers were forced to stand trial?

Or is this treatment reserved for journalists who question those in power? Laws of general applicability cease to be generally applicable when abused to retaliate against the press.

A photo posted on the Asheville Police Twitter page January 14, 2022 with the caption: "APD Make Multiple Arrests in December Illegal Dumping Protests at Aston Park that Caused More than $2K in Cleanup."
A photo posted on the Asheville Police Twitter page January 14, 2022 with the caption: "APD Make Multiple Arrests in December Illegal Dumping Protests at Aston Park that Caused More than $2K in Cleanup."

The seizure of Bliss’ phone tells the whole story of why they were targeted.

The Blade reported that right before the arrests, an officer pointed at Coit and said “(They’re) taking pictures.” News reports say the only people arrested solely for trespassing during the sweep were the journalists.

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 news does not keep regular business hours.

Prosecutors in Oregon dropped similar charges against journalist April Ehrlich last August. In that case, police set up an unconstitutional media “staging area” during an encampment sweep and ordered the press not to come closer. Ehrlich refused to report from the cheap seats.

Asheville police did not bother with a staging area. They thought they could avoid public scrutiny altogether by waiting until closing time to conduct the sweep. That’s ridiculous — especially coming from a department that professes a “commitment to provide greater transparency and accountability” in its taxpayer-funded PR. 

Ehrlich is suing over her mistreatment. A California journalist, Jeremy Portje, also sued after a similar ordeal at an encampment sweep. Bliss and Coit would be well-justified in doing the same, especially after being forced to wait 396 days (assuming no further continuances) to find out whether they’ll serve time for doing their constitutionally-protected jobs. In 2016, authorities here rightly dropped charges against Mountain XPress reporter Dan Hesse just days after his arrest while covering a protest at police headquarters. What's different this time around?

Other cities launch investigations, not prosecutions, when authorities harass journalists for “trespassing.” A probe is underway into the conduct of Phoenix officers who detained Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Rabouin for interviewing people on a private sidewalk, after video of the incident went viral last week.

The Atlanta Police Department has reportedly launched an investigation into officers who threatened to arrest a journalist for trespassing when he refused to delete protest footage. Neither Rabouin nor the Atlanta journalist were booked and processed, let alone put on trial.

It’s unfortunate that Asheville authorities have chosen a different route that is sure to have significant costs, monetary and reputational, for the city.

Asheville residents who value the free press should demand Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams drop this shameful and un-American prosecution.

They should not tolerate their government risking another dime of taxpayer money to harass journalists accused of nothing but journalism. And they should question why police officers with nothing to hide would want to arrest journalists in the first place.

Seth Stern is the Director of Advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation. He previously worked as a First Amendment lawyer and journalist.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Prosecutors should drop retaliatory prosecution of Asheville journalists