- Date of Incident
- December 25, 2021
Asheville reporter convicted of trespassing following five-day jury trial
Asheville Blade reporter Veronica Coit was found guilty of trespassing by a jury, along with fellow reporter Matilda Bliss, during a five-day trial that ended on June 16, 2023.
The journalists were arrested while documenting a homeless encampment sweep by police in Asheville, North Carolina, on Dec. 25, 2021, and were charged with second-degree trespassing.
After multiple trial delays, a judge found Bliss and Coit guilty on April 12, 2023. Both were ordered to pay a $25 fine and court costs, while Coit was additionally sentenced to a 10-day suspended prison sentence and one year of probation.
Their attorney filed an appeal asking that the case be heard by a jury and the sentences were held pending the outcome of the retrial, which began on June 12.
On June 16, the jury found both Bliss and Coit guilty, according to Bliss. She told Freedom of the Press Foundation, which manages the day-to-day operations of the Tracker, they were each sentenced to a fine of $100 plus court costs. The Asheville Citizen Times reported that their defense attorney entered a notice of appeal for both cases immediately after the verdict.
According to an earlier account in the Citizen Times, the judge reportedly instructed the jury not to consider the constitutionality of the charges against Coit and Bliss and had not decided their motion to dismiss under the First Amendment. Before the jury convened, the judge indicated orally that he was going to deny the motion and issue a written ruling to that effect later.
FPF has led a coalition of media organizations and press freedom groups demanding the charges be dropped. In a statement, FPF Advocacy Director Seth Stern said the verdict was disturbing and called it a loss for the people of Asheville.
“They gain absolutely nothing from their government weaponizing trespassing laws to punish journalists for doing their jobs,” Stern said.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with additional details following the verdict.
Asheville journalist learns of park ban in lead up to jury trial
Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit, who were found guilty of trespassing during an April bench trial, are now scheduled to appear for a jury trial on June 12, 2023, after the case was rescheduled to allow time for discovery.
Blade Editor David Forbes told the Freedom of the Press Foundation in early May that the journalists, unbeknownst to them, had been placed on a “City Park Ban List” following their December 2021 arrests. They were barred from entering city parks in Asheville, North Carolina, for one year, with “Camping in Aston Park refused to leave” listed as the justification. Bliss told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that by the time they learned of the ban it had already lapsed.
According to the ban list, reviewed by the Tracker, more than a dozen others arrested during the Dec. 25 encampment sweep were barred from Asheville parks for three years. The ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit on behalf of some of those individuals on April 18.
Reporters convicted on trespassing charges, immediately appealed for jury trial
Asheville Blade reporters Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss were convicted on second degree trespassing charges on April 19, 2023, stemming from their arrests while documenting a homeless encampment sweep in Asheville, North Carolina, nearly 16 months prior.
According to Shadowproof, both journalists were ordered to pay a $25 fine and court costs, while Coit was additionally sentenced to a 10-day suspended prison sentence and one year of probation.
The Blade reported the decision on Twitter, writing that the judge ignored the press freedom arguments made in the journalists’ defense and “openly” sided with the Asheville Police Department’s assertion that the press had no right to remain in the park after curfew.
“Every reporter, everyone who's ever criticized any official or cop should find the push to punish our journalists chilling,” the Blade wrote.
The attorney representing Coit and Bliss immediately filed an appeal for the case to be heard before a jury trial, the Blade reported. Blade Editor David Forbes told the Freedom of the Press Foundation that the trial is currently scheduled for May 1 and that the sentences are on hold pending the results of that appeal.
After nearly a year of continuances, the pair was originally set to stand before a judge for a bench trial in September 2022 — that hearing was delayed until January 2023 before being postponed yet again.
NC Newsline investigative reporter Kelan Lyons, who was live-tweeting the trial from Asheville, wrote that Buncombe County Chief District Judge Calvin Hill said that there was no evidence presented to the court that the pair are journalists. Hill offered the reporters the option of asking for judgment to be withheld, which would prevent them from having a criminal record, but they declined.
Bliss told Lyons that the case has consequences for journalism across the country. “We’re going to fight this to the end,” Bliss said.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with details of the journalists’ pending sentences.
Veronica Coit, a reporter for the Asheville Blade, was arrested alongside another Blade reporter while covering a police eviction of a homeless encampment in Asheville, North Carolina, on Dec. 25, 2021.
The Blade reported that Coit, whose pronouns are they/them, arrived at Aston Park after reporter Matilda Bliss discovered that a significant police force had gathered there shortly before 10 p.m. A small encampment in the park was the latest focus of ongoing city efforts to clear Asheville’s homeless populations out of public areas, according to the Asheville Citizen Times.
As officers directed everyone in the camp to “move on” under threat of arrest, Coit and Bliss documented their actions from a distance, according to the Blade.
The outlet reported that one of the officers then pointed toward Coit and said “[they’re] taking pictures.” Five officers then advanced toward Coit and placed them under arrest. Several officers then told Bliss to immediately leave the park or face arrest.
Bliss told the Blade she identified herself as a member of the press multiple times before she, too, was placed under arrest. Blade founder and editor David Forbes told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that while Bliss was wearing a press pass issued by the outlet, Coit did not have their lanyard press pass that night.
“According to the last things [Bliss and Coit] observed, and from sources they later spoke with, APD then grew even more violent, dragging campers out of tents and arresting them,” the Blade reported. “Our journalists were clearly targeted first to remove those who could quickly bring the brutality that followed to the public’s attention.”
Coit and Bliss were each charged with misdemeanor trespassing, which carries a penalty of up to 20 days in jail and a $200 fine. Coit did not respond to requests for comment.
Forbes told the Tracker that Coit was released at approximately 12:15 a.m. on the 26th, but Bliss, whose phone was confiscated, was not released until approximately 1:50 a.m. The Asheville Police Department did not return a call requesting comment.
The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the arrests in a statement on Twitter a few days after the incident:
“Authorities in #Ashville, NC should drop all charges against @AvlBlade reporters Veronica Coit and @matilda_bliss, who were arrested on December 25 We are deeply concerned that @AshevillePolice interfered with their reporting, and unnecessarily confiscated Bliss's phone.”
Forbes told the Tracker that the charges against Bliss and Coit are still pending and they both have hearings scheduled for March 8, 2022.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Veronica Coit, who was previously a freelancer for the Asheville Blade, is now a reporter for the news co-op.