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Drawing the line

NEWPORT – The Barton Chronicle owner and publisher Chris Braithwaite was in court Wednesday morning for a pretrial conference.

Braithwaite was arrested and charged with trespassing last December while covering a protest on Lowell Mountain.

His attorney, Phil White of Newport, told the court that he is waiting for information from Green Mountain Power and once received is ready to move forward with the trial. Jury draw is scheduled for today and the upcoming trial is expected to last just one day.

Deputy State’s Attorney Sarah Baker submitted a motion yesterday to exclude witnesses, testimony, and evidence which would solely be used to support the press “trespassing” on private property to report on government response to a protest. In the motion, the state argues that there are no rights afforded to the media to enter private property when they are not invited to cover the government’s response to a protest.

At the time of the protest, GMP was in the midst of building a 21-wind turbine project. Protesters moved onto the construction road; an area in which ownership is under a property dispute, and blocked construction vehicles. When police arrived, protesters were told to move or face arrest. Braithwaite was also told to move by police, and he did. He moved to a location as far away as he could and still observe the arrest because he wanted to make sure the arrests were handled properly. However, he was still on GMP property and police arrested him.

White has named T. Ross Connelly and local reporter, Robin Smith, as witnesses. Connelly is called as an “expert” on the nature of the working press and its history covering protests. The State notes that neither witness was at the site during the time of Braithwaite’s arrest.

Why Smith is listed as a witness is not explained, and White could not be reached for comment. But Smith covered a subsequent protest on Lowell Mountain, along with Braithwaite and other reporters who were allowed to stay and witness the arrest of protesters.

That day GMP invited the press to the site when the protest began.

Braithwaite was also told by GMP officials that he could come onto the site anytime as long as he notifies them and wears the proper safety equipment.

White argues that under the U.S. and Vermont Constitutions, the press should be allowed on private property to cover protests and the government response if their presence is essential to cover the event and their presence does not cause harm. He also argues that when a private property owner invites the government onto its property, the owner waives the right to object to the press covering the government’s response, and that it is in the public’s best interest to have the press cover such events. He says that GMP’s invitation to Braithwaite to come back proves that media presence in covering events benefits GMP as well as the general public.