BARTON – Most people awaiting trial are advised to lay low, say little. Chris Braithwaite wrote a book while waiting for his case to be heard. His lawyer has no problem with it.
Braithwaite is no ordinary defendant – and that is one of the points he’d like to make in court.
The 68-year-old with a face that is part Santa Claus, part Jeremiah Johnson is a journalist who went from covering the story to being part of the story. Though he said that’s not what he set out to do, he hopes his case will carve out new ground for a journalists’ right to be there when the government is doing its business.
“The most direct effect the state can have on our lives is to physically take us,” Braithwaite said in a recent interview in the back yard of his newspaper’s office. “That moment demands coverage by us.”
Braithwaite was charged with trespassing last Dec. 5 as he was covering a protest against Green Mountain Power Corp.’s wind turbine construction atop Lowell Mountain. Six protesters were also charged.
Braithwaite had no more right to be on the mountain that day than the protesters, the prosecutor has argued in court papers. Lawyers, and even media groups, say the freedom of the press does not translate to freedom from arrest.
Braithwaite conceded. “The perceived wisdom is I don’t stand a chance.”
Still, Braithwaite was surprised at this arrest, surprised again that the charge has not been dropped. Now, he and his lawyer, Phil White, hope to make the case in the courtroom that all sides – the protesters, Green Mountain Power, the police and the public – are better off if he’s allowed to be there at the top of the mountain to tell the story of the protesters meeting the police.
Orleans County Deputy State’s Attorney Sarah Baker has argued otherwise in court papers, successfully fighting White’s request to have the case dismissed. Nothing in the state’s Constitution or case law suggests that freedom of the press has been extended to allow the media to enter private property when they’ve not been invited, even to report on government’s action, Baker argued.
So far, the court has agreed. Vermont Superior Court Judge Robert Gerety ruled in February, “The court concludes that there is no legal authority for the proposition that the defense as a member of the press enjoyed a privilege to trespass on private property.”
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press based in Virginia, said that has held true across the country. “You don’t get to trespass to cover a story,” she said. “You don’t get to speed on a highway to cover a story.”
White, a former Orleans County state’s attorney with a fire for arguing constitutional cases, plans to argue that that should not always be the assumption. A reporter might not be able to go into someone’s house to cover an arrest, but standing off to the side on top of a mountain is different – and warranted, given the value of having him there as an observer, White said.
“You balance these interests,” White said. “I think it should be open for discussion and review.”
“I would love it if we could win a case that said in any way at all to the authorities, to the actors, that the media has a certain standing,” Braithwaite said.
White, though, found few court cases he could turn to in support of his argument. He opted for citing one judge’s dissenting opinion in an Oklahoma case.
He expects Braithwaite to go to trial this fall. His case is being heard separately from those of the six protesters.
“I hope the courts will appreciate that the government was invited onto the property and when a police officer did that the press gets to go along,” White said. “The press’ ability to cover that action is important.”
Braithwaite co-founded the small but feisty Barton Chronicle in 1974, the same year Richard Nixon resigned the presidency.
Now past the age when many people retire, Braithwaite still works from his cluttered desk in the corner of the basement of the small white building where the Chronicle cranks out news every week.
He is the publisher but also a reporter and editorial writer. He has not lost his fever for telling people about things going on around them.
Last week, he covered a motorcycle crash on Interstate 91. A Quebec man was struck in the face by a loose traffic barrel in a construction zone, and Braithwaite. “It’s one of those stories – everybody passes it on the interstate – things that really touch people because it could have been them, you know?”
The story of 21 wind turbines being constructed atop Lowell Mountain, some 30 minutes west of Barton, has gripped Braithwaite like no other. In his new book, “Stand Against the Wind,” on the arrest of the six protesters, he wrote that it’s a story “that makes me glad I’ve pushed my retirement beyond the standard age.”
“The story of the Lowell Six is one of the best I’ve had a chance to cover in a journalism career that dates, on and off, back to 1963,” he wrote. Protests with that kind of conviction and local flavor are rare, he noted.
The book is only peripherally about Braithwaite’s own arrest. Its real purpose, he said, was to tell the story of the six protesters whose passion for their cause has gripped him.
From the beginning, when Green Mountain Power announced its plans to build wind turbines on Lowell Mountain, Braithwaite was clear with his opinion. He editorialized against it in his newspaper. In the last several years, he’s written a slew of news and opinion stories about the project that has deeply divided the Northeast Kingdom.
He covered the story when residents of the town of Lowell voted at town meeting in 2010, by a tally of 342- 114, to support the project. His story is a straightforward account of the vote followed by other matters at the meeting.
He’s also written numerous columns with more of an edge against the project. Two months before his arrest for trespass, Braithwaite published a column about the trek up the backside of the mountain that protesters were regularly taking. He described the bright orange tape Green Mountain Power had posted to mark its land as a sort of line “between an old and new vision of the Northeast Kingdom.”
“Between a Kingdom that has been husbanded, however imperfectly, by generations of people who did things in a small and simple way; and a Kingdom that can be transformed by people who don’t seem to care about all that – people who will embrace any technology as long as it is trendy and profitable,” he wrote.
By last fall, the project on top of the mountain was progressing. Green Mountain Power had built a road up its side of the mountain, dynamite charges were being set off on a nearly daily basis and huge trucks were clearing a path for the turbines.
Protesters would gather on the other side of the mountain on land owned by Donald and Shirley Nelson and make the 45-minute hike to top in hopes that their presence would delay the blasting. Braithwaite sometimes joined them, chronicling the stories of anonymous protesters who adopted nicknames such as “Muskrat” and “Bald Eagle.”
On Dec. 5, having failed to significantly delay the blasting, some of the protesters moved farther into Green Mountain Power’s scope, seeking to block earth-moving machinery. Braithwaite went with them.
On the mountaintop, Green Mountain Power officials called in Orleans County sheriff’s deputies, who told the group that anyone who declined to leave would be arrested.
Deputy Phil Brooks, whom Braithwaite knew well from stories he’s covered over the years, told him he faced arrest just the same as the others, Braithwaite said.
“I told Brooks I intended to cover the arrests, then leave immediately. He said that wasn’t good enough,” Braithwaite recounted in his book.
Braithwaite said he stood off the side, but refused to retreat as far as Brooks asked him to because he would have been unable to watch the protesters get arrested. He was the only reporter on the scene. Other reporters from afar had been too willing to take the word of both Green Mountain Power and the protesters in describing events, he said.
“If I obeyed, there would be no neutral witnesses. Just the protesters, the police and Green Mountain Power,” Braithwaite wrote in his book.
Braithwaite argues his opinion about the project is irrelevant to his argument that he was covering the protests as a journalist. “It doesn’t mean you’ve lost your ability to report on it,” he said.
If the protesters had hauled off and belted a police officer, (which they didn’t) he would have written about it, he said, just as he would have written about it if the police had roughed up the protesters (which they didn’t) .
He was clearly distinct from the other protesters in that he carried no sign, posed no threat of uncertain actions to Green Mountain Power or the police and had no plans to stay once the protest was over.
Maria Archengelo, president of the Vermont Press Association and editor of the Stowe Reporter, speculated that Braithwaite’s opinion pieces on the issue were a factor in his arrest. “I think they don’t believe on some level he’s an outside observer,” she said.
Green Mountain Power spokesman Dorothy Schnure said at the time of his arrest that he hadn’t gone through the safety rundown that other reporters who had visited the site on other occasions had done.
Still, Braithwaite said, he doesn’t expect anyone to argue in court that he was actually there as a protester.
On the scene
Though he’d been warned he would be arrested, Braithwaite said, he didn’t think it would really happen. Throughout his career he delicately negotiated his presence with officials at the scenes of accidents, protests and crimes. Always, they were able to work something out.
In the vast majority of cases that’s how it works, said Archengelo. She said she too was surprised the charged haven’t been dropped against Braithwaite.
Whether the results of Braithwaite’s case will carry ramifications for how other reporters covering tense events is unclear, she said, but worth watching.
A call seeking comment about the case from Baker, the prosecutor, was referred to her boss, State’s Attorney Alan Franklin, who did not respond.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding