USA: North Carolina journalists should be free to do their jobs without fear of legal action
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the charges against two reporters from The Asheville Blade to be dropped. The journalists were charged with trespassing after reporting on a homeless encampment sweep by police. The trial against them sets a dangerous precedent that journalists can be prosecuted just for doing their jobs.
Update on 4/19/23
Both Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were found guilty. “We are deeply disappointed by this decision. We understand both journalists intend to appeal this decision and RSF stands firmly behind them,” says Clayton Weimers, Executive Director of RSF’s DC Bureau.
The trial of Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit begins on 19 April. The North Carolina journalists are charged with trespassing after their efforts to document law enforcement clearing unhoused people from a public park on 25 December 2021. Body camera footage records police targeting the journalists because they were recording the sweep.
“These two journalists were serving the public interest by documenting this event, and their presence is protected by the First Amendment. The charges against them for trespassing are a poor attempt by local officials to intimidate the press and public from being able to monitor law enforcement. RSF urges county officials to drop the charges against Bliss and Coit and make a statement on the unjust action taken against two journalists who were just doing their job.
The Asheville Blade defines itself as a “leftist local news co-op”. Both Coit and Bliss are reporters for the citizen outlet, but Coit was a freelancer for the outlet at the time of the arrest. According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, Bliss and Coit were charged with misdemeanor trespassing and could face 20 days in jail and a $200 fine. Journalists are occasionally arrested in the United States, but the charges against them are rarely brought to a trial. In February 2023, NewsNation reporter Evan Lambert was arrested at a press conference in East Palestine, Ohio. The charges against Lambert were eventually dropped and Ohio’s governor issued an apology.
Fifteen journalists were arrested in the US in 2022 per the US Press Freedom Tracker. While the number of journalists detained annually in the United States has fallen sharply since a recent peak in 2020, incidents like these underscore the need for better protections and training at the local level for law enforcement to better respect the rights of the press.
The United States is ranked 42nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index.