NC Local for Dec. 9: Where the sun don’t shine*

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

[Also in the Dec. 9 edition: Sharif Durhams returns to NC as The N&O/Herald-Sun’s new managing editor, and answers a few of our questions; Report for America adds NC newsrooms for grant-funded journalist jobs in 2021; and more good work. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox each week]

Tuesday was an extraordinary day, to say the least, at Alamance County’s Historic Courthouse in Graham. Tom Boney Jr., publisher of The Alamance News, was forcibly removed from a second-floor courtroom and handcuffed in a hallway outside — for asserting his constitutional right to be there.

Deputies — citing COVID restrictions and by order of visiting District Judge Fred Wilkins — had denied The Alamance News, Carli Brosseau of The News & Observer and Jordan Green of Triad City Beat entry to the courthouse. They were there to cover the case of a woman accused of felony assault with a deadly weapon against two girls at a Black Lives Matter protest in August. (The journalists also had been barred Dec. 2 from a hearing in another protest-related case.)

Their three news organizations objected to the denial of access and asked for a hearing. The motion, written by their attorney, Amanda Martin, general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association, said the journalists had been told they could not enter unless they were parties to the proceedings. The denial also came without a written order specifying the reasons — something that U.S. Supreme Court rulings have said is required. And the journalists had been denied their right to a hearing on the decision. 

The objection (read it here) cited Article I, Section 18 of the state Constitution (“All courts shall be open”) and several precedents supporting a “common law and constitutional right of access to judicial records and proceedings.” 

‘This courtroom is not closed to the public; it is closed to you.’

But when Boney, who was allowed inside to file the objection, tried to speak in its defense, Wilkins ordered him removed from the courtroom. Deputies took him out and handcuffed him briefly in a hallway. 

Boney told Green later that Wilkins had told him: “This courtroom is not closed to the public; it is closed to you.”

Brosseau, in this Twitter thread, and Green, here, offer a running account of what happened. Here’s the Alamance News report.

All three newsrooms had to rely on interviews afterward to report the outcome of the case (two misdemeanor guilty pleas). [N&O] [Triad City Beat] [Alamance News]

“We plan to appeal and seek an immediate remedy,” Robyn Tomlin, president and editor of The N&O, told me this morning. Green told me that Triad City Beat also would seek appellate review.

(You’ll remember that one of Boney’s reporters, Tomas Murawski, was arrested in October while covering a voting march in Graham. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has urged the Graham police to drop those charges.)

 The RCFP has a guide to reporters’ newsgathering rights, including court access.

  ➵ * I know. It’s an idiom.

Meanwhile, down I-85 in Gastonia…

Gaston County commissioners had been scheduled to vote Tuesday night to authorize spending $100,000 to pursue a libel suit against The Gaston Gazette, but their meeting was delayed until Dec. 17 by what a county news release called “a potential COVID case,” Ann Doss Helms reports for WFAE.

The lawsuit challenges a Gazette report Nov. 12 that raised questions about the board’s adherence to the state’s Open Meetings Law.

It may seem obvious, but Helms and Nick de la Canal of WFAE have four constitutional experts on the record saying that public bodies can’t sue for libel, citing New York Times v. Sullivan.

Each of the seven commissioners, and the board itself, are plaintiffs in the suit, which says the Gazette story “impeaches Plaintiffs in their trades or professions.” It asks for actual and punitive damages.

Stay tuned on that one, too.

From NC Local: The right to know, takeaways from the Workshop’s public records training session

By Eric Frederick

NC Local newsletter editor
Obviously, reporting on public meetings has changed this year, with most of them going virtual. Journalists, as always, have faced issues getting public records, and data are even more crucial now to public health and safety. The challenges of reporting on police actions have been amplified, and we’re dealing with legislative secrecy.

The NC Local News Workshop and the NC Open Government Coalition at Elon, working with the NC Press Association, held a session Aug. 26 where journalists and experts shared what they’ve learned about getting public information in these times.

Panelists were communications lawyers Amanda Martin and Mike Tadych, and reporters Tyler Dukes of WRAL; Emily Featherston of WECT; Nick Ochsner of WBTV; Victoria Bouloubasis, a freelance investigative reporter who has been working with Enlace Latino NC; Kirk Ross of Carolina Public Press; and Lucille Sherman of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. [Watch the Zoom recording.]

Key takeaways:

Read moreFrom NC Local: The right to know, takeaways from the Workshop’s public records training session

Covering Voting for Voters: Register now to inform your local journalism

NC BOE site

North Carolina’s election season begins this Friday, Sept. 4, as the first absentee ballots in the nation start going out by mail. Get information and resources on how you’re covering the election process at a special convening on Zoom with elections officials and journalists, sponsored by the NC Local News Workshop, NC Open Government Coalition, and NC Press Association.

Register now for “Covering Voting for Voters,” scheduled for Sept. 9 from 9-10:30 a.m. Share your questions, and links to your own coverage so we can highlight it. Translation will be offered for participation by Spanish speakers.

Panelists include:

  • State Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell
    Karen Brinson Bell
    Derek Bowens
    Derek Bowens

    and Durham County Director Derek Bowens, who will outline what they think voters should know about the election process and what the public can expect.

  • Reporters including Jordan Wilkie from Carolina Public Press, Will Doran from The News & Observer, Paola Jaramillo of EnlaceLatinoNC, Wake Board of Elections member and Twitter election information provider Gerry Cohen, on what local journalists should be looking out for in their counties.
  • News organizations including Scalawag, The N&O, QCityMetro, and The Daily Tar Heel about building election coverage around community and voter needs.
  • John Hernandez from the American Press Institute and its Trusted Elections Network on resources for covering misinformation.

Send questions or comments to Melanie Sill, NC Local News Workshop executive director.

Meanwhile, catch up via Zoom recording on two recent events focused on public records and covering COVID-19 for Spanish speakers: Check our events page for those links.