Trespassing Charges Dropped Against Barton Chronicle Publisher | Off Message

Trespassing Charges Dropped Against Barton Chronicle Publisher

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One year after Barton Chronicle publisher Chris Braithwaite was arrested atop Lowell Mountain while covering a protest at the site of the controversial wind development, the state yesterday dismissed the trespassing charges leveled against the longtime Northeast Kingdom newsman. 

Braithwaite was arrested last December along with six protesters at the site of Green Mountain Power's Kingdom Community Wind development. As the Burlington Free Press this morning reports:

Orleans County sheriff’s deputies arrested Braithwaite along with six protesters who refused to leave. The Orleans County State’s Attorney’s Office pursued all the charges, claiming Braithwaite had no more right to be on the mountain that day than the protesters. The six protesters were found guilty of trespass by a jury in August.

Braithwaite's case was set for a jury trial starting December 13 in Vermont Superior Court in Orleans County. On Tuesday, Braithwaite's lawyer, Phil White, filed a motion to dismiss the charges after receiving subpoenaed documents from Green Mountain Power. Those documents are sealed, and the motion White filed is redacted (download that motion here). However, the Free Press is reporting the documents regarded GMP's "internal policy for handling protesters and media coverage of them."  

Deputy State’s Attorney Sarah Baker filed a notice of dismissal with the court yesterday afternoon, before the court could rule on White's motion to dismiss.

Seven Days snagged a few minutes with Braithwaite this morning, when he spoke to us by phone from his office in Barton. He says he signed a nondisclosure agreement in order to view the GMP documents, and couldn't say much about their contents — but added he's trying to get the documents unsealed, and hopes other newspapers will do the same. 

"I wish I could tell you why this was dismissed, but I can’t," he says. "We’ll try and change that."

Reflecting on the past year, Braithwaite says it's been unusual to transition from role of journalist covering the news to that of the individual making headlines. "I've spent untold hours in that courthouse and in that courtroom since 1974," says Braithwaite of the Orleans Superior Court. "It's pretty fascinating to be going through the process that you've watched so many times." 

However, he says the case didn't much complicate his work as a publisher — except when it came to covering the wind issue, a contentious one in the Northeast Kingdom. Braithwaite says that after long talks within the Chronicle newsroom, he and his staff decided that he should continuing covering the story.

"We talk about it a lot, and pretty much came to the conclusion that I should ... and not be run off that story by what we considered a bad case," he says. "It seemed important to me not to say, 'Oh my god, I can’t write about this because I’ve been charged.' That would be a retreat."

Braithwaite has editorialized against the wind development, and says that the trespassing charge convinced "far too many people" that he was "really a protester all along." That wasn't the case at all, he contends. Small newspapers don't have the luxury of independent reporting and editorial opinion staffs, he says, and "short of never expressing an opinion about anything, you have to wear both hats." He maintains that he was careful during the three or four months that he covered protests atop Lowell Mountain to remain a journalist, not a participant. 

Baker last month filed a motion to exclude any testimony regarding the privilege of the press to trespass while reporting a news event. Both Braithwaite and his lawyer hoped to make a case to advance that privilege and clarify the constitutional rights of journalists. In a statement from White, the lawyer said he intended to argue that constitutional rights require a balancing act when property rights clash with First Amendment rights — particularly as they apply to journalists.

"The argument would be that the importance of being able to cover that (event) would outweigh the infringement of GMP's property rights," says Braithwaite. 

But for now, that discussion won't play out any further. While Braithwaite says he's happy the case against him has been dropped, he admitted feeling a "touch of regret" that he and his lawyer wouldn't have the chance to make their case in court.

Photo credit: Kerrie Pughe

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