Asheville journalists convicted of trespassing for covering police action at public park

Police officer: “I didn’t care whether they were reporters or not. It meant nothing to me.”

By: - April 20, 2023 11:43 am
Asheville Blade reporters Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss

Veronica Coit (far left) and Matilda Bliss (second from right), two reporters for The Asheville Blade, having lunch during a recess in their ongoing trial. (Photo: Kelan Lyons)

Two Asheville journalists were convicted of trespassing Wednesday for covering the city’s police presence in a public park on Christmas night 2021.

Chief District Court Judge James Calvin Hill found Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss, two journalists for the self-described leftist news outlet The Asheville Blade, guilty of second-degree trespassing for failing to leave Aston Park after police repeatedly told them that it was closed. Hill rejected arguments that Bliss and Coit were just doing their jobs, instead stating that it was a “plain and simple trespass case.”

Police had arrived at the park shortly before it closed at 10 p.m. and told those gathered that they needed to leave or they would be arrested. Bliss and Coit were the first of six people arrested; 16 were ultimately charged with felony littering in connection with the protest at Aston Park.

Two of those cases were being tried Wednesday at the same time as Coit and Bliss.

Protestors had been gathering in the park all week leading up to Christmas, making art and pushing city officials to set up a “sanctuary camping” site so people who were homeless could access restrooms and other basic amenities. At least one other unsheltered person was there that evening, according to testimony at the trial Wednesday.

The protests were a flashpoint in the city’s treatment of its homeless population. Activists alleged the city’s actions undermine its progressive reputation when housing in the western North Carolina city has grown increasingly unaffordable.

Attorneys debate police officer motives

The journalists’ attorney, Ben Scales, argued during Bliss and Coit’s trial that their charges raised questions over how the police, and Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office, respond to criticism. He said Bliss and Coit were arrested as retaliation for their reporting and their news outlet’s political ideology, which is in favor of defunding and abolishing the police.

“Their viewpoints are directly contrary to the established interests that they report on,” Scales said, arguing that the Asheville Police went to Aston Park that night to clear the camp, and intentionally arrested the journalists first, an argument potentially strengthened by body cam footage from that night, which included footage of an officer suggesting that Bliss and Coit be arrested first since they were filming.

“It makes sense they didn’t want anybody to know what they were doing, so that’s why they arrested these people first,” Scales said. “These journalists were arrested in order to stop them from reporting.”

Assistant District Attorney Robert McRight said what stopped the journalists from doing their jobs was their own refusal to leave the park after it had closed.

“They couldn’t report the news because they broke the law,” McRight said. “There is no special shield that reporters get just because they’re journalists.”

McRight and Mike McClanahan, a lieutenant with the Asheville Police who testified Wednesday, rejected the idea that the case was about anything other than trespassing. McClanahan said Bliss and Coit were arrested because they wouldn’t listen to his order that they leave, and his decision to arrest them had nothing to do with their profession.

“I didn’t care whether they were reporters or not,” McClanahan said. “It meant nothing to me.”

McClanahan said there were “multiple vantage points” where the reporters could have gone to be off park grounds and continue to observe the police. However, under questioning from Scales, he admitted the sidewalk was “at least 150 feet away” and at the bottom of a hill.

The city’s standard operating procedure had been to give a seven-day notice before sweeping a homeless encampment, McClanahan said, but he said the tents at Aston Park were not an established campsite.

“I’m not sure how camping has anything to do with second-degree trespassing,” he said.

Scales said the seven-day notice policy, and the ways the police and city had “misled” the media over it, spoke to the newsworthiness of the event; the fact that the police were violating it and kicking people out of the park made the event newsworthy, he said.

“They weren’t just regular trespassers,” Scales said. “They were members of the press.”

McRight rejected the idea that Bliss and Coit could break the law and claim otherwise just because they’re journalists. The case is about trespassing, McRight told the judge, not about the First Amendment.

“It is an existing and being in a space where you are not allowed to be,” he said. “Whether not you are a journalist is irrelevant.”

A quick ruling from the bench

Judge Hill read the cases the defendants had submitted as precedent to bolster their arguments. Coit, Bliss and Scales huddled at the defense table. McRight whispered with McClanahan and another prosecutor. Eventually the room got quiet as Hill considered his decision.

After 33 minutes, Hill had a verdict. He said he was unconvinced the case before him was a free speech case, but even if it was, the ideas of freedom of speech and expression are not “an absolute right,” and that limitations can be set in certain circumstances.

He cited the city ordinance stating that Aston Park closed at 10 p.m. but said there’s a mechanism by which people can request to stay there after hours.

“Journalists are just regular folks,” Hill said, meaning they were not protected to stay in the park after hours, but had a mechanism by which to do so, as outlined in the ordinance.

Hill also said no evidence was presented to the court showing that Bliss and Coit are reporters. Merely claiming to be reporters was not enough.

“They may be journalists, but there was no evidence provided to the court that they are journalists,” Hill said.

Questions about journalism aside, Hill accepted McRight’s argument that the case was about trespassing and found them guilty. Coit and Bliss said they would appeal, which means they will have a jury trial in Superior Court. The trial date is set for May 1, but that could be delayed.

An impending jury trial

Outside the courtroom after the trial, Scales said he was “disappointed but not shocked” because the law does not provide journalists with an “automatic get out of jail free card.”

Scales said the jury trial in Superior Court will be much different than the bench trial before Hill in District Court. He said because Coit and Bliss’s trial was in District Court, he didn’t have the right to discovery, the process of getting evidence the other side plans to present in court. But in Superior Court, he will.

“We will put on a case. We will put on evidence,” Scales said. “We will seek a lot more discovery and a lot more information, and we’ll demonstrate that police knew who they were, knew what their viewpoints are, and undertook this action for that reason.”

National press advocacy groups are watching the case from afar. Seth Stern, the director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation said in a statement that it was “ridiculous” the case had gotten to this point.

“Prosecuting victimless ‘crimes’ by journalists does not serve the interests of justice and does not benefit the taxpayers funding the prosecution,” Stern said. “We’re glad to hear that Bliss and Coit are appealing to a jury trial under North Carolina procedures. We hope this awful ruling is reversed by citizen jurors who hopefully value the First Amendment more than Asheville police, prosecutors and judges.”

Stern wondered whether Hill wanted to set a precedent that journalists must ignore news happening “in plain sight on public land” solely because it is nighttime.

“Asheville residents deserve to know what their police department is up to at any hour,” he said.

Earlier this year the Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office asked the North Carolina attorney general for help with prosecuting its backlog of 40 murder cases, leaving Scales to wonder if taking two journalists to trial for a misdemeanor was worth the time and effort when there such serious cases still pending.

“It doesn’t seem, to me, to be something that prosecutorial and police resources should be spent on,” he said.

After finding them guilty, Hill offered the reporters a prayer for judgment continued, which means Bliss and Coit would not have had the conviction on their record. But accepting that would have meant they would not have been able to appeal.

Asked why she didn’t just take Hill up on his offer, Bliss said the appeal was important because the case isn’t just about them or The Blade.

“There are consequences for journalism in the U.S.,” Bliss said. “This is a much larger issue than Asheville.”

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.