U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

NC news publisher charged with criminal contempt of court

Incident Details

Date of Incident
December 3, 2018

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Arresting Authority
Macon County Circuit Court
  • Contempt of court
    • Dec. 3, 2018: Charges pending
    • Jan. 11, 2019: Convicted
    • Jan. 11, 2019: Pending appeal
    • Dec. 3, 2019: Convicted
    • Dec. 3, 2019: Pending appeal
    • Mar. 12, 2021: Convicted
Unnecessary use of force?
Equipment Seized
Search Warrant Obtained
December 3, 2018

Davin Eldridge, publisher of the local news site and Facebook page Trappalachia, was charged with contempt of court on Dec. 3, 2018, for recording and livestreaming a criminal proceeding in November 2018 at the Macon County Courthouse in Franklin, North Carolina.

The News & Observer reported that despite posted signs stating that recording was not permitted in the courtroom and a warning from a bailiff, Eldridge allegedly continued to film court proceedings. The presiding judge, William Coward, reiterated his rule against recording and, after viewing Eldridge’s Facebook posts, which included the livestreamed footage, ordered the journalist to return to the courtroom later that day. Eldridge did not comply with that order, according to a subsequent ruling by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

Eldridge did not respond to requests for comment.

On Dec. 3, Coward issued an order for Eldridge to appear in court on Jan. 11, 2019, to argue why he should not be held in criminal contempt of court. The judge also signed a search warrant granting the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation access to Eldridge’s Facebook account records and several messaging threads.

On the date of the hearing, Eldridge motioned for Coward to recuse himself, arguing that since the inciting incident had taken place in his courtroom, the judge could not be impartial; Eldridge’s motion was denied. Coward subsequently found Eldridge guilty of criminal contempt and sentenced him to 30 days in jail, which was suspended; the journalist was then placed on probation for one year. A condition of Eldridge’s probation, the Free Speech Center reported, was that he write and publish a 2,000-to-3,000-word essay online about respect for the court system and delete any negative comments people may write.

Eldridge immediately appealed the ruling, challenging Coward’s decision not to recuse himself, the charge and the legality of the probation conditions, including the essay writing.

In December 2019, the Court of Appeals upheld Coward’s ruling, stating, “Given defendant’s questionable and intentional conduct, his frequent visits to the courtroom, and his direct willingness to disobey courtroom policies, we discern no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s decision to impose conditions on defendant’s probationary sentence. Such conditions are reasonably related to the necessity of preventing further disruptions of the court by defendant’s conduct, and the need to provide accountability without unduly infringing on his rights.”

A dissenting opinion was entered by Judge Christopher Brook, who agreed that Coward had the right to restrict recording in the courtroom and find Eldridge guilty of contempt but found that the conditions of his probation had “deeply troubling constitutional problems.”

The Tracker has captured Coward’s required pre-approval of the essay and removal of all negative comments in its prior restraint category.

Eldridge again appealed the ruling. On March 12, 2021, the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the Appeals Court’s decision without any explanation.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].