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If The Police Can Decide Who Qualifies As A Journalist, There Is No Free Press

Above Photo: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout.

Where’s the outcry?

Mainstream media have been strangely silent following the arrest of two reporters in North Carolina.

On a cold Christmas night in 2021 in the picturesque mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina, The Asheville Blade journalist Veronica Coit sat in a police station waiting to be booked. A police officer motioned toward Coit and said, “She says she’s press.” The magistrate responded: “Is she real press?”

“In that very moment, he could’ve decided that we were press, which we were,” Coit said during an interview I conducted recently for “The Project Censored Show” on Pacifica Radio. “The magistrate has the legal right to say ‘no’ [to booking someone].”

But the magistrate didn’t exercise that right. Both Coit and their colleague Matilda Bliss were processed for trespassing while covering the eviction of unhoused people at Aston Park in Asheville. Although Aston Park is a public park, Coit explains that the City of Asheville recently instated a 10 pm curfew on all public parks to keep people from sleeping there. It’s a common if not vicious tool used by many other cities in the ongoing attack on unhoused folks, giving law enforcement the green light to forcibly remove and arrest those seeking shelter and sleeping in the city’s parks. It is apparently now also a tool that can be used against journalists who cover these attacks on the unhoused. As of this writing, both journalists are awaiting a jury trial after appealing the guilty verdict handed down by Judge James Calvin Hill on April 19. With that decision, Judge Hill stepped brazenly on the throat of a free press, potentially introducing a precedent that makes journalism illegal — if it’s the kind of journalism the ruling class doesn’t like.

Since 2018, as reported by the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have been four trials — including this one — against journalists for “offenses allegedly committed while gathering and reporting the news.” But this is the first case of its kind to find the defendants guilty.

When the judge’s gavel came down, it should have prompted massive outcry from anyone who has ever had a byline. But instead of sending chilling shockwaves across the journalistic landscape, it provoked a cooling shudder at best. Some alternative media covered and continue to cover the case. Nearly 50 civil society and media freedom organizations, along with the ACLU of North Carolina, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, National Press Club, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Project Censored, have called on the city of Asheville to drop the charges. But there has been no national outcry over the case in corporate media.

Coit and Bliss weren’t invited on CNN to talk about the war being waged against journalists. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising, considering the fact that corporate media largely remain silent about the ongoing torture of Julian Assange, the man who put many of these so-called journalists on the map by making WikiLeaks files available for their vulturine picking over. If they can’t be bothered to mention Assange, the world’s most dangerous journalist in the eyes of U.S. empire, the rest of us have little hope of finding solidarity or support from corporate journalists.

This is a frightening prospect. Coit and Bliss’s case makes it clear that we cannot rely on our so-called justice system to defend the First Amendment; that the rights afforded to us even by our outdated and flimsy constitution are not inalienable but can be subject to theatrical interpretations by whoever is sitting on a platform wearing a baggy robe.

Bliss explained that they were offered a plea deal before the bench trial. A state law called “Prayer for Judgment Continued” (yes, it’s actually called that) is North Carolina legislation that kind of gives you a free pass so long as you admit to being guilty. A Prayer for Judgement Continued won’t show up as a conviction on your record and typically entails a lesser punishment for certain misdemeanors, and more often traffic violations where it’s used to avoid getting points on a license. In this case, “the conviction ‘goes away’ after a year if we don’t do any other crime,” Bliss said. “Define how that works, because we were not doing crime all the times members of our collective have been arrested.” If Bliss and Coit had taken the Prayer for Judgment Continued, they would not be allowed to appeal. They would have to accept the guilty verdict and presumably not be journalists for a year, seeing as being journalists is what got them a guilty verdict in the first place. And wouldn’t that just be a neatly wrapped gift for the Asheville ruling class?

Still, Judge Hill refused to acknowledge their press status and therefore any suggestion that this was a First Amendment case. In his decision, he stated, “They may be journalists, but there was no evidence provided to the court that they are journalists.” This despite the fact that, as Coit points out, “that was the only thing that the prosecution and the defense agreed on — they did not have to prove that we were employed with the [Asheville] Blade. Being journalists was not up for debate.” For the judge, magistrate and cops, however, this apparently was up for debate: Through each stage of the justice system, Coit and Bliss’s status as journalists was questioned and found wanting.

“It’s a very dangerous precedent to allow the police or anyone in government to define what it means to be a journalist,” said Ben Scales, Bliss and Coit’s attorney. “We simply don’t allow it in this country.”

Should this guilty verdict hold through a jury trial, it will be clear that we do allow it. Anytime police or the ruling class they serve feel threatened by the journalistic gaze, they can simply decide that a journalist is not actually a journalist.

Indeed, from the very outset, police targeted Coit and Bliss precisely because they were engaged in journalistic activities. In police bodycam footage from the Aston Park eviction, you can hear an officer ask, “Why don’t we deal with the standing first, since they’re videotaping?” And so they did. Coit and Bliss were the first people arrested that night. Several times, they identified themselves as press, and each time, the police ignored their right to remain and cover the eviction.

This is a point that Scales is highlighting. “I believe they were arrested because (1) they were journalists and (2) they work for the Blade,” he wrote in an email response. “The police action was scheduled for Christmas night to avoid scrutiny, and locking up the reporters first was necessary to fulfill that plan.”

The fear of an adversarial press is something to which the Asheville Police Department (APD) has admitted. A consultant firm hired by the City of Asheville to address continued calls to defund the APD sent out surveys to residents and also sat down privately with police to hear their thoughts. The consultant firm then presented its findings at a city council meeting. “One of their [APD] top concerns was scrutiny from the media,” Bliss said. She also explains that in records she acquired from a previous eviction at Aston Park, The Asheville Blade’s coverage was sent to the police commander, the police chief and the city manager as an example of the dangers of bad press.

But what these police chiefs, judges and magistrates didn’t acknowledge is that this “bad press” is precisely what defines a free press. A truly free press only exists when there’s an adversarial press. If a nation only allows a press that always agrees and never questions, you have stenographers, not journalists. The free press is there to protect those who go after the ruling class, who demand accountability from the architects of oppression, and who not only peer behind the facade of American exceptionalism but who boldly denounce and deface it.

The APD is right to be uncomfortable in front of Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss. Indeed, all law enforcement and every politician should be uncomfortable in front of an adversarial press because an adversarial press will always demand answers and accountability and will not settle for fluff and dodges. We will platform the calls to defund and abolish the police. The frontline fights against climate chaos, gentrification, war, and any and all effects of an empire in decline have been and will be splayed across grassroots media pages precisely because corporate media won’t cover them. They’d rather show you video of Donald Trump’s idling airplane than tell you that 15 million people just lost health care coverage.

This is why independent media are dangerous to the ruling class, and why there have been such massive efforts to silence the champions of a truly free press. Be it shadow banning, outright censorship and de-platforming, fake news watchdogs like NewsGuard doling out red check marks to anyone out of sync with U.S. propaganda, or indeed arresting and convicting journalists, the official line on press freedom is simple: be what, where and how we tell you to be — or else.

Thankfully, neither Coit nor Bliss is accepting that ultimatum, an inspiration to all radical and grassroots journalists. In this defiant stance, we may find the solidarity and support that will always be lacking from corporate media talking heads and the supposed defenders of our constitution. From captions to bylines, let’s continue to rattle thrones and topple empires.

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