(NEW YORK) – The arrests and convictions of two North Carolina journalists on trespassing charges for filming police as they cleared an encampment of homeless people sets a “dangerous precedent” that could be used to constrain press freedom as journalists do their jobs, PEN America said today.

The free expression and free speech organization was responding to the trespassing convictions on April 19 of two Asheville Blade journalists, Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss. They had been  arrested while documenting police clearing of an encampment for unhoused people in a public park after it closed on Christmas night in 2021.

“Filming police while they are doing their jobs is speech protected by the First Amendment. Full stop,” said Kate Ruane, director of US free expression programs at PEN America. “Convicting journalists of trespassing when they were engaged in the act of reporting sets a dangerous precedent that could be used to criminalize journalistic activity and constrain press freedom. The Constitution does not permit the government or the police to hide behind trespassing statutes to punish and deter journalists from doing their jobs and reporting on police activities in their communities. This decision is deeply disappointing. We are pleased that Bliss and Coit are appealing to a jury trial and hope that this dangerous decision will not stand.”

PEN America has previously spoken in support of the constitutional right to record police in the course of their duties.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057