NEWPORT CITY – The publisher of a well-known weekly newspaper in Orleans County pleaded not guilty Tuesday morning to trespassing while covering a protest at the Lowell wind site.
Chris Braithwaite, 67, of Glover gave his plea to Judge Robert P. Gerety Jr. in Orleans Superior Court–Criminal Division without his attorney, Phil White, who could not be present.
White filed a motion Tuesday asking Gerety to dismiss the charge, seeking to make case law on the freedom of the press to cover government actions on private property under the U.S. and Vermont constitutions.
White compared the situation to the press coverage 50 years ago of four black men who trespassed at a whites-only lunch counter in a department store in Greensboro, N.C. He called that protest and the press coverage of it “one of the seminal moments in the modern civil rights movement.”
“The public’s interest is substantial in having the press present to cover acts of civil disobedience” and the conduct of the protesters and the police, White said.
A hearing is set for Jan. 26 on the motion.
Gerety told Braithwaite that he was released on condition that he return to court when required. No bail was required.
Braithwaite’s hearing came after six protesters stood to plead not guilty to trespassing.
The six were on the Lowell ridgeline Dec. 5, blocking the crane path of the wind project.
Braithwaite followed the protesters to cover them when police arrived at the request of GMP. Sheriff’s deputies told Braithwaite he had to leave the site or face arrest. He refused, saying he was there to cover the protest and would leave as soon as arrests were made. He was arrested and charged along with the protesters.
Braithwaite was offered but did not take a plea deal of diversion Tuesday from Orleans County State’s Attorney Alan Franklin, which would have seen the charge dropped eventually.
“I certainly appreciate the generosity of the diversion offer but it doesn’t speak to the issue,” Braithwaite said after the hearing. “I don’t think I broke the law. We will go to a jury trial and sort it out.”
White argued that journalists have covered big events while on private property.
White said Braithwaite was at the wind site to cover the protest, not to incite or encourage the protest. “His presence as an additional person on the scene did not increase any damages caused by any trespass of the protesters, nor did it add to any damage that may have been caused to the property owner’s interests by the protesters.”
Braithwaite moved out of the way of the police but stayed on the property in order to observe and photograph the arrests, White said. If he had gone off the property, White said Braithwaite would not have been able to do his job.
And he said Braithwaite has an invitation from GMP to go back to the site.
“GMP has no desire to keep Braithwaite off the construction site or away from any future act of civil disobedience,” White said.
“A week after the arrest, on Dec. 12, Braithwaite was invited to the site by GMP to observe such a protest, and driven to the site where a protest had taken place within the hour – and where, in fact, Braithwaite had been arrested on Dec. 5,” he said.
“The members of the working press have enjoyed special protections and privileges,” White said.
That should be extended to include covering government actions on private property.
White said members of the working press “should enjoy a special right and privilege under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Chapter 1, Articles 6 and 13 of the Vermont Constitution to cover protests on private property and the governmental response to those protests provided that they are:
â?¢ Indeed members of the working press.
â?¢ Their presence on private property is essential for them to cover the protest and the government’s response to the protest.
â?¢ They have not encouraged, incited, aided or abetted the protest itself in any significant way.
â?¢ Their presence does not increase the harm to the private property owner.”
White said a property owner waives any right to object to the presence of the working press when that owner asks for government help.
“There are no governmental or private property interests that were adversely affected in this case in any tangible way by Chris Braithwaite’s added presence in addition to the protesters,” he said.
“The public’s right to know and the beneficial aspect of the press’ ability to monitor the manner in which the government responded, how it effectuated the arrests, and the number of arrests actually made far outweighs” the interests of the property owner, White said. “This should be an open question under Vermont and federal jurisprudence which should be decided in favor of press access.”
In referring to the lunch-counter protest in North Carolina, White said, “The presence of a UPI reporter covering the act of trespass and reporting photographs and stories of the continuation of this quiet civil disobedience and the escalating violence of the response to it was one of the seminal moments of the modern civil rights movement.
“Regardless of whether the arguments outlined above find resonance with the court under constitutional grounds, they should resonate to support a motion to dismiss under the interests of justice on the facts in the present case,” he said.
“GMP’s behavior since the arrest makes it clear that it desires and supports press access to allow coverage of any acts of civil disobedience on its construction site. Even if there was a technical violation of the law – which Braithwaite does not concede – the victim’s subsequent actions make it clear that, not only did the putative trespass do no harm to the victim, but it in fact served the victim’s interests as well as the general public’s,” White said. “Dismissal, in these circumstances, would clearly be in the interests of justice.”
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