NEWPORT CITY – A judge has denied a motion to dismiss a trespassing charge against The Chronicle Publisher Chris Braithwaite for covering a protest in December at the Lowell wind construction site.
Judge Robert P. Gerety Jr., in a terse written ruling filed in Orleans Superior Court -Criminal Division, said that Braithwaite as a journalist did not have a legal right to go without permission onto private land to cover a news story.
The ruling lines up with what some experts in the press and the law have said about the case, saying freedom of the press has limits and that the U.S. Supreme Court has set precedent in such cases.
Braithwaite intends to ask a jury to dismiss the charge against him. If convicted, he would fight the charge all the way to the U.S. and Vermont supreme courts, if necessary, Braithwaite’s attorney said Thursday.
Braithwaite, 67, of Glover was charged with unlawful trespassing on Dec. 5 when he followed a group of protesters to the private wind site on the ridgeline being prepared for 21 industrial wind turbines by Green Mountain Power.
GMP leases the ridgeline land from private property owners.
Six protesters were also charged with trespassing after they blockaded construction vehicles on the crane path on the ridgeline. Braithwaite and the protesters all pleaded not guilty and refused to accept Diversion to eventually wipe their records clean. The protesters want to take their case to trial.
Braithwaite was taking pictures of the protest when deputy sheriffs arrived, called in by GMP to remove the protesters. The deputies told him to leave the property or face arrest. Braithwaite stood away from the blockade but was still on the property. He was arrested with the protesters and charged.
At a hearing in January and in arguments filed with the court, his attorney Philip White argued that journalists should have the right to document the activities of government agents like police officers on private property, especially in what he called a quasi-public site like a government-regulated energy facility. He cited a case of journalists covering a protest on an Oklahoma nuclear power plant construction site, where one dissenting judge on appeal argued that reporters should be able to cover events on quasi-public facilities.
In his ruling, Gerety rejected White’s arguments.
“The court concludes that there is no legal authority for the proposition that the defendant, as a member of the press, enjoyed a privilege to trespass on private property under the circumstances presented in this case,” Gerety wrote.
In response, White issued a written statement Thursday.
“We understand the reluctance of the trial court to set precedent at this level,” White stated.
“Chris Braithwaite and The Chronicle have decided that the principles involved are important, that the working press have a recognized and important function monitoring and commenting on government activity, that this function is recognized in both the U.S. and the Vermont constitutions, that the role of the working press as The Fourth Estate is essential to the functioning of a democracy, and that this principle needs defending,” he wrote.
“Chris Braithwaite and The Chronicle intend to take this issue to trial and pursue this issue, if necessary, to the Vermont Supreme Court and to the U.S. Supreme Court,” White stated.
The charges against the six protesters and Braithwaite continue to move toward trial in the Newport City courthouse.
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