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State of North Carolina v. Bliss

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  1. First Amendment

Court: North Carolina Court of Appeals

Date Filed: March 29, 2024

Background: On Christmas night in 2021, Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were arrested while reporting on the clearing of a homeless encampment in a public park. The two journalists were charged with second-degree trespassing.

In a bench trial conducted in district court in April 2023, a judge convicted Bliss and Coit of the charges. The journalists appealed that ruling to the Superior Court, where the journalists were convicted by a jury after it was instructed not to consider the constitutionality of the charges.

In a June 2023 decision denying the journalists’ motion to dismiss the charges, Superior Court Judge Tommy Davis held that granting the request would have itself violated the First Amendment, concluding that not arresting journalists covering encampment clearances would have discriminated against other speakers at the park.

Represented on appeal by the First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law School, Bliss and Coit appealed the ruling to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

Our Position: The Court of Appeals should reverse the decision of the trial court. 

  • Enforcement of park closure ordinances must leave open ample alternative channels for news coverage of the enforcement action. The contemporaneous documentation of police activity cannot be recreated through any means other than being present as it occurs.
  • Not arresting journalists covering encampment clearances does not violate the First Amendment by discriminating against other speakers.

Quote: “[A]micus is aware of no caselaw addressing an ordinance that would prevent press from covering the clearing of an encampment in a public park, either through an arrest for trespass or through removal of a reporter to a position so far away that continued newsgathering is practically impossible. By contrast, recent caselaw supports the proposition that First Amendment constraints — including the need for any closure of a public space to leave ‘ample alternative channels’ for communication — may require that law enforcement ensure that journalists retain the ability to meaningfully cover law enforcement activity.”

Related: In September 2022, a judge in Oregon dismissed charges against public radio journalist April Fonseca Ehrlich, who was arrested two years earlier while covering the police removal of homeless campers from a public park. The judge’s decision followed extensive advocacy efforts by the Reporters Committee and a large coalition of news outlets and press freedom groups urging the city of Medford, Oregon, to drop all charges stemming from Ehrlich’s arrest.

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