ASHEVILLE - The trial of two Asheville reporters arrested while covering a homeless camp clearing on Christmas Day was set to begin Nov. 21, but with the prosecution's key witness out sick, the trial was continued until Jan. 25.
The Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were arrested Dec. 25 in Aston Park. Last winter, Aston Park was the focal point for a number of sanctuary camp demonstrations that culminated in the arrests of six individuals, including Bliss and Coit.
"This is ludicrous," Coit said Nov. 21 after the continuation. Further delay means the reporters and other defendants will not go to trial until more than a year after their arrests.
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For further comment, Coit deferred to a statement made by the The Asheville Blade on Facebook.
"We remain determined to fight against this persecution to the last," the post said. "Our cooperative is thankful for the outpouring of support from Asheville locals, press freedom organizations, journalists and people around the world. Sadly what we face is all too common in a town where any opposition to the status quo faces vicious repression."
The Asheville Police Department did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Attracting national attention
Bliss and Coit are charged with misdemeanor second degree trespassing. Classified as a Class 3 misdemeanor, the charges carry a penalty of up to 20 days in jail or a $200 fine.
Both are represented by attorney Ben Scales, who also was not in attendance at the trial due to illness.
According to arrest reports, the individuals were arrested Dec. 25 around 10:45 p.m. The city park closes at 10 p.m. The four people arrested who were not members of press were also charged with resisting a public officer. Their trial dates were also continued until Jan. 25.
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Bliss said they have seen five continuances, but this was their first where a trial was expected.
"I echo comments by Veronica," Bliss told the Citizen Times by email following the planned trial. "That an entire year will have passed by the time we see our trial date is yet another example of the lengths to which Asheville's government, its police, and DA's office will go to criminalize dissent, and in our case leftist journalism."
Bliss said the night of the arrest, she was standing as far back as possible from the police action as possible, "while still having the ability to cover what was happening and do our jobs, just as we had done other nights that week."
Her press badge was displayed, she said, and she shouted repeatedly that she was press. Reporting from the Asheville Blade indicates that pictures and video were being taken.
"We affirmed our status as journalists countless times. We were there to gather news, cover an event of public interest that was being tracked by multiple publications."
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The case has attracted the attention of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an American nonprofit with correspondents worldwide. CPJ promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists.
CPJ's U.S. and Canada Program Coordinator Katherine Jacobsen was not available to provide comment Nov. 21, but spokesperson Nicole O'Neill referred to a February letter sent by Jacobsen to Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams.
The committee urged Williams to drop the misdemeanor trespassing charges pending against Coit and Bliss, noting that they were "engaged in journalism" when they were arrested by the Asheville police.
"It is essential that local reporters are able to access and cover their communities without fear of retaliation from local authorities or infringement on their First Amendment rights," Jacobsen wrote.
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According to a CPJ statement, as of Nov. 18, they had received no response to the letter.
Williams did not respond to a request for comment Nov. 21.
Kristi Nickodem, assistant professor of public law and government at UNC School of Government, acknowledged it is a "really complex area and a really complex issue."
"The law doesn't generally grant reporters a greater right of access than the general public," Nickodem said. However, in a traditional public forum, like a park, restrictions on speech have to be subject to scrutiny.
While the government can impose "reasonable content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions on speech," she said, such as the park closing at 10 p.m., government restrictions on speech that are based on the speaker's viewpoint are unconstitutional.
"In other words, you would really have to make an argument that (police) were targeting the reporters based off the viewpoint that they thought the reporters were going to express or targeting them while not targeting other people who were in the park after hours," Nickodem said "In other words, you would have to make an argument that this was a viewpoint-based restriction in order for it to be unconstitutional."
According to Bliss, other bystanders were as far back as she and Coit but were not arrested.
"And after we were arrested Asheville police began dragging people from tents," Bliss said. "This isn't rocket science. It was an attack on those present that started with an attack on press freedom."
While it can be difficult to prove in litigation, Nickodem said, "if there are facts showing that they targeted the reporters based on the viewpoint they thought they were going to express, ie: they are going to be reporting negatively about the cops, that is unconstitutional in any type of forum."
Felony littering and more
Bliss noted that this was not the first time a Blade reporter had been arrested while on the job.
In August 2020, Coit was arrested while covering racial just protests in downtown Asheville. They were charged with impeding the steady flow of traffic and failure to disperse on command, according to court records. All charges were dismissed July 2021.
"It's no surprise then that Blade reporters have faced charges for our journalism three times since summer of 2020, a time when thousands of locals insisted on real change from Asheville government," Bliss said. "No other local publication has faced what we have."
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The December protests at Aston Park also resulted in 16 people being charged by the Asheville Police Department with felony littering. There is some overlap with those arrested on Dec. 25 and those later charged with felony littering, but neither Coit nor Bliss are facing felony littering charges.
Several felony littering defendants have a court date scheduled in Superior Court Dec. 12.
Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email email@example.com or message on Twitter at @slhonosky.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Trial date set for Asheville reporters arrested while covering APD