Publisher Tom Boney Jr. speaks on a cell phone with attorney Amanda Martin in the conference room of the Alamance News offices in Graham. (photo by Jordan Green)
Triad City Beat, along with the News & Observer and Alamance News, is petitioning the North Carolina Court of Appeals to require the Alamance County Courts to open court proceeding to the public and press, as charges against dozens of protesters arrested over the past couple months await adjudication.
The petition filed with the Court of Appeals on behalf of the three newspapers on Thursday evening seeks a judicial order requiring “judges and other public officials who administer the Alamance County court system to permit reasonable and guaranteed access to all court proceeding by members of the public and representative of the news media, including the petitioners.”
Journalists employed by the three newspapers have been prevented from attending at two hearings in as many weeks.
Carli Brosseau, a reporter with the News & Observer, and Alamance News publisher Tom Boney Jr. both submitted written requests to attend a Dec. 2 hearing for the court to consider a request by the Alamance County District attorney to ban Rev. Greg Drumwright from county property “as a danger to the community.” Judge Fred Wilkins, a substitute judge from Rockingham County, denied their requests.
Drumwright has led a handful of marches in Graham since early July, including an ill-fated Oct. 31 “Legacy March to the Polls” that was disrupted when Graham police, later joined by Alamance County deputies, pepper-sprayed attendees, including children and at least one disabled individual using a motorized scooter. More than a dozen people were arrested, including Drumwright and Alamance News reporter Tomas Murawski. Drumwright’s misdemeanor charges were later upgraded to felony assaulting a law enforcement officer and felony obstructing justice. Local authorities have promoted a narrative that Drumwright is a risk for starting a riot, despite the fact that the marches under his leadership, including two since Oct. 31, have remained consistently peaceful.
Brosseau and Boney, joined by Jordan Green from Triad City Beat, again attempted to attend a hearing in Judge Wilkins’ courtroom on Tuesday. The hearing, which took place at the Historic Courthouse, was for a case involving a 52-year-old white woman accused of vehicular assault against two 12-year-old girls of color. Faith Cook, the mother of one of the victims, was among the protesters arrested during the Oct. 31 march to the polls. Sandrea Brazee, the defendant, ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of assault with a deadly weapon at the hearing on Tuesday, and Judge Wilkins sentenced her to two suspended 60-day sentences and 12 months of probation with an order to receive a mental-health evaluation.
Brosseau and Boney submitted written requests to attend the hearing on Tuesday. Brosseau and Green attempted to enter the courthouse to request a hearing from Judge Wilkins, but a deputy stationed at the courthouse door told them the judge had denied their request.
Just before the 11 a.m. hearing, Boney entered the courthouse with a formal objection drafted by Amanda Martin, an attorney with the Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych law firm in Raleigh. Boney filed the objection in the clerk’s office and took a seat in Wilkins’ courtroom. When Boney attempted to address the court, Wilkins threatened to hold him in contempt of court and ordered deputies to remove him from the courtroom. Boney was placed in handcuffs, and the judge rescinded his threat to hold the publisher in contempt on condition he leave the courthouse voluntarily.
“Courts must be fully transparent in all stages and in all proceedings, but those concerns are heightened in cases implicating such important societal issues as the Black Lives Matter movement, individuals’ rights of assembly and free speech,” Martin wrote in the petition to the court of appeals. “To some degree, the actions of public officials, including law enforcement, will be implicated in the rally cases.”
The petition cites the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ 1986 decision in United States v. Beckham, which reads, “[W]hen the conduct of public officials is at issue, the public’s interest in the operation of government adds weight in the balance toward allowing permission to copy judicial records.”
The petition also cites the US Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of California, which ruled that “the presumption of openness may be overcome only by an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.”
The petition on behalf of Triad City Beat, the News & Observer and Alamance News asks the state Court of Appeals to consider whether a courtroom can be entirely closed to the public “when reasonable alternatives exist that both accommodate the First Amendment and preserve safety during a pandemic.”
The petitioners acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic “creates a compelling need to safeguard public health by imposing some limits on access to courtrooms.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley reiterated during a press conference: “Our courts are always open to the public.” Similarly, Gov. Roy Cooper has clarified in executive orders that First Amendment activity may not be restricted during the pandemic and that “newspapers, television, radio, film and other media services” are essential occupations exempt from restrictions.
The petition proposes that the Alamance County courts could accommodate reporters while protecting the public from COVID by setting cap on occupancy as a percentage of the state fire capacity, similar to Gov. Cooper’s executive order on gym. Other options include reserving a number of seats for representatives of the media, or even allowing a single pool reporter or camera to broadcast the court proceedings.
The petition notes that the media has long been considered a surrogate for the public in court proceedings. The petition quotes US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in an opinion denying a petition for writ of certiorari in the 1950 case Maryland v. Baltimore Radio Show Inc.
“One of the demands of a democratic society is that the public should know what goes on in courts by being told by the press what happens there, to the end that the public may judge whether our system of criminal justice is fair and right,” Frankfurter wrote.