So this week, three newspapers filed a motion asking for clarity and demanding access to observe a Tuesday hearing in a case that has drawn the attention of local Black Lives Matter activists. One publisher pushed the issue harder, walking into the hearing and telling Judge Fred Wilkins he had a right to be there.
That’s when the handcuffs came out.
In the escalation of a showdown that has alarmed government transparency advocates, Wilkins kicked Alamance News Publisher Tom Boney Jr. out of the courtroom and threatened to hold him in contempt. After deputies removed Boney in handcuffs, the judge withdrew the contempt charge but said the publisher still had to be escorted from the building.
According to Boney, Wilkins told him the courtroom wasn’t closed to the public, but “it’s closed to you.”
Boney later called Wilkins’s actions a “heavy-handed and unreasonable reaction to try and bring the law of our state constitution” to bear. Journalists, he noted, play a crucial role observing courtroom activity to keep government accountable.
“People need to know how decisions are arrived at — was the conclusion, the verdict, the pleading, fair? Was it reasonable?” Boney said. “The problem is I have no way to evaluate it, because I wasn’t there.”
Wilkins is currently serving as a “visiting judge” in Alamance County, several years after losing a reelection bid for his former judicial post in a neighboring county; he was assigned by the state Administrative Office of the Courts to temporarily fill in for a resident district judge out on medical leave. Questions for Wilkins and Chief District Court Judge Bradley Allen, sent through the Alamance County court clerk, were not returned.
Alamance County District Court trial court coordinator Sandy Cobb said in a statement that the judicial branch is not allowed to comment on cases, and judges are discouraged from making public comments on pending cases.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Thomas Lambeth referred questions to the district court, but said “we’re working together on a procedure for high-profile hearings.”
“I will tell you during this pandemic we have made arrangements for other hearings,” Lambeth said of the Superior Court. He presided over a high-profile case hearing this summer involving a speedway fighting shutdown orders, which was live-streamed.
Journalists’ right to access criminal court proceedings, except in narrow situations such as those involving juveniles, is generally recognized across the country and has been upheld by the Supreme Court, experts said.
In addition to the First Amendment, the North Carolina state constitution provides journalists and the public access to courts, a right that “can only be limited if specific findings are made in court and those findings are made available to the public,” said David Ardia, a University of North Carolina law professor who is co-director of its Center for Media Law and Policy. “So it cannot be closed on a whim.”
During the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, some journalists across the country reported having trouble accessing courts, as the health crisis caused courts to shutter, limit attendance and delay hearings. But since then, many courts have figured out creative ways to keep people safe while letting reporters do their jobs, from live-streaming hearings to providing audio files after the fact.
“Most judges recognize there is a constitutional right of access, and it’s really to the benefit of the judicial system to have public access, because that’s what makes the public trust that it’s working,” said Caitlin Vogus, senior staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
In fact, the pandemic has made journalists’ access even more important. “We’re in a moment where the general public can’t just walk into a courtroom either,” said Robyn Tomlin, editor and publisher of the News and Observer. “We’re simply representing their interests in these cases, and trying to make sure there’s a light being shined so people can understand the decisions that are being made.”
Which makes what happened in Graham, N.C., the county seat of Alamance, so troubling, journalists and free press advocates say. “We realize it is appropriate for courts to undertake certain measures during these pandemic times to limit exposure, but closing down access to the press entirely is not one of them, and removing a newspaper publisher in handcuffs is certainly not appropriate,” said Phil Lucey, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association.
Given that the judge didn’t provide a written ruling to close the court or any alternatives, “we cannot assume this was anything other than an effort to block access to the press from the court proceedings,” he added.
The small bedroom community midway between Greensboro and Durham has been the site of ongoing racial justice demonstrations. The county tried this summer to ban protests at the courthouse, site of a Confederate monument; a federal judge said they couldn’t do that. A peaceful march to the polls on Oct. 31 ended with police in riot gear and gas masks using pepper spray and arresting 23 people, including an Alamance News journalist. The incident, which made national news, was deemed “unacceptable” by Gov. Roy Cooper (D).
For months, Black Lives Matter protests have been met by counterprotesters, and “there is a sense, really on both sides, that the authorities aren’t treating them fairly,” News and Observer reporter Carli Brosseau said. “The idea of justice is highly contested in Graham, with a strong racial divide, and I think the closure of the courthouse allows those ideas to grow even stronger, with no way to check.”
Last week, Brosseau and other journalists couldn’t get into Wilkins’s courtroom for a hearing involving the Rev. Greg Drumwright, a leader of local protests who was arrested during the Oct. 31 march. Prosecutors alleged Drumwright was “a danger to the community” and sought to ban him from county property; Wilkins ended up dismissing the motion.
Then came a hearing in another notable case: Sandrea Brazee, a 52-year-old White woman, was accused of driving her truck toward two 12-year-old girls of color, one of them the daughter of a prominent local activist.
So the three newspapers — the News and Observer, Triad City Beat and Alamance News — filed their motion demanding access. And once again, Brosseau couldn’t get into the court. “I was told, reporters couldn’t go in, and when I said I wanted a hearing and am entitled to a hearing, I was told ‘there’s his parking spot, you can talk to the judge when he gets out.’ ”
But Boney, a journalist for some 30 years and local fixture, managed to get inside Wilkins’s courtroom. He had just hand-delivered a letter to top judges, asking for help and citing the state constitution’s guarantee that “all courts shall be open.” When Wilkins noted the motion and asked if there was a lawyer there related to it, Boney stood up and identified himself as a publisher — but, according to Boney, Wilkins cut him off and said he had already ruled on the matter.
“He said if I didn’t leave, he would hold me in contempt, and I said, ‘Your honor, I believe I’m entitled to be here and I’d like to explain,’ ” Boney recalled. The judge said the courtroom wasn’t closed to the public, motioning to the roughly two dozen there, Boney said, but that “It’s closed to you.” According to Boney, the judge never specifically invoked the pandemic.
That’s when Boney was handcuffed “in a manner I thought was unnecessarily rough,” the publisher said, and taken out of the courthouse. The hearing continued.
Because Brosseau couldn’t be in the courtroom for the hearing, she had to rely on lawyers in the case to tell her what happened. While Brazee was initially charged with two felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon, prosecutors told Brosseau they couldn’t prove those charges and reduced them to misdemeanors. Brazee pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 months probation and two 60-day jail sentences that were suspended, Brosseau reported.
But there are more hearings, including in the cases of the Oct. 31 arrests involving people who have been protesting because, as Tomlin said, “they feel like their voices haven’t been heard by their government and law enforcement leaders.”
“The justice system must determine the outcome of those charges. There’s already an inherent lack of trust in the justice system by those involved,” she continued. “To have these adjudications happening in the dark, without impartial journalists there to observe and report, it only deepens that chasm of trust and weakens the system as a whole.”
The three newspapers have filed an emergency petition with the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Jeremy Barr contributed to this story, which has been updated at 10:45 a.m. Saturday with a statement from the Alamance County District Court.