The editor and publisher of the Barton Chronicle, Chris Braithwaite, was arrested early this week while covering a protest at Green Mountain Power's Lowell Mountain Wind Project. The arrest has prompted a number of editorials about freedom of the press in Vermont media:
“Heave the tea overboard!”
Such might have been the cry over 200 years ago when Sam Adams (the
patriot, not the beer) joined fellow colonialists to protest the English
Stamp Act. Adams and his compatriots threw boxes of tea into Boston Harbor
as an act of civil disobedience. Immortalized as a foundation block of
American democracy, the Boston Tea Party of Dec. 16, 1773 was not only a
protest against what Adams and others thought was an unjust law, the protest
was the intentional breaking of a law that is seen as unjust.
Move the clock ahead 238 years to Dec. 5, 2011 to the Lowell Mountains
where a small group of local citizens took a stand of civil disobedience
against what they consider to be an unjust application of the law. In
parallel with the protesters in Boston over two centuries ago, who did not
believe they should be taxed by the king, the modern-day protesters object
to the Lowell Wind Project under construction on the ridge line and
authorized by the state’s Public Service Board. The wind protesters do not
believe the PSB make a sound decision, and they also dispute the ownership
of the land where a road leads up the mountain to the construction site.
Thus, Monday, a group of six people stood in the roadway with signs reading,
“Road Closed: Due To Environmental Destruction” and “Detour To Honest Energy
Policy.” Their intent was to be arrested as a way to advance their cause.
They were charged with unlawful trespass and arrested, with Dec. 20 set as a
A seventh person was also arrested: Chris Braithwaite, the publisher of
the Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Barton that covers Orleans County.
Braithwaite was on site to report on the protest as part of the ongoing
coverage of the wind project he has reported consistently for his newspaper.
He identified himself as a working journalist to law enforcement officers
but was arrested after he stated he was there to cover the event, needed to
be in proximity to the police and the protesters and would leave after the
arrests were made.
Green Mountain Power spokesperson Dorothy Schnure said the arrests for
trespassing were necessary because of safety issues. Apparently, safety of
the U.S. Constitution and the public’s right to know the truth were not an
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall
make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the
right of the people to peaceably assemble…”
Yes, Green Mountain Power has the right to protect its property and to
prohibit access to that property. And, no, journalists do not have any
special rights not available to other citizens.
Citizens do have a right, however, to know what is done in their name.
Had Braithwaite not been at the protest site, the press would not have been
able to report on the behavior of protesters or the tax-paid police
enforcing a public trespass notice, sanctioned by the state courts and
enacted by the state Legislature. If a public act of civil disobedience
cannot be seen by the public and the behavior of the parties involved cannot
be seen, the public is denied knowing the truth.
Civil disobedience has a long history in this country, stretching from
the time of Sam Adams, though the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to the
current protest on the Lowell Mountains. Had the press been prevented from
covering the acts of civil disobedience in American history, we could still
be living under English rule, women and people of color might still be
denied the right to vote, people who labor could still be working
unregulated, 18-hour days in unsafe conditions, public accommodations might
still be segregated — the list goes on. Green Mountain Power, law
enforcement officers, the courts and the Vermont Legislature undermine
democracy when they sanction the arrest of journalists for doing their job.
The health and safety of American democracy require that the press be
allowed to report the news.
ON MAKING BAD DECISIONS
Chris Braithwaite, a long-time journalist and publisher of the award-winning Barton Chronicle, was arrested on Lowell Mountain Monday. He was reporting on the protests of GMP’s industrial wind farm when an Orleans County Sheriff’s deputy arrested him. He was cited with trespassing and processed at the state police barracks in Derby along with six protesters.
The arresting officer was Orleans County Chief Deputy Sheriff Phil Brooks. The arrest was later explained by Sheriff Kirk Martin who stated, “He [Braithwaite] was on GMP property. He was asked to leave and refused to comply.”
Yesterday Robin Smith reported that the deputies on the hill knew Chris and offered him an opportunity to cover the story from a nearby property. Chris argued that the distance from the adjacent property to the protest was too far away to enable him to do his job.
Smith also reported that Chris had no special exception to be on GMP private property without GMP’s consent. Brooks apparently asked GMP if anyone could be on their property. They said no, effectively, arrest everyone.
But Chris, a talented and seasoned journalist, was covering a story. Take the protesters away and Chris would most certainly have followed. His attendance on the hill benefits everyone.
He shouldn’t have been arrested.
The First Amendment guarantees that the press will be free from overreach or interference from the government. By letter of the law it does not preempt individual property rights. Tabling the narrow legal discussion for a moment, however, an on-site journalist favors all parties – the police, GMP and the protesters.
The job of the journalist is to provide an objective third-party account, to document events and offer unbiased context for them. There is a delicate peace on Lowell Mountain, enforced by hired guns, and enjoyed by mutually distrusting parties – GMP and the protesters. Both groups want their good practices noted and liability protection should things go bad. People behave better when others are watching and taking Chris off the mountain heightens the probability of a bad outcome. It also makes the public suspicious.
GMP, which looks absolutely terrible in the case of Lowell Mt., surely wants to avoid an explosive he-said-she-said battle between forces on the mountain. Not that they can look much worse, but asking police to arrest a reporter cannot possibly be construed as a public relations win.
Certainly police have a tough job and we’re appreciative, sharing emotionally charged environments with cops as often as we do, for their typically enlightened, laissez-faire treatment of reporters. Journalists, who also have a tough job and are trained t o stay out of the way, don’t expect to be above the law. They do, however, expect freedom from harassment that is guaranteed by clear and unambiguous legal protections. In this case GMP would certainly have been well-served to observe the spirit of those protections.
So while GMP shows no appreciation for the obvious value of the media, we applaud Chris for standing his ground. This is the latest sad chapter in a truly grotesque tale.