Barton Chronicle Publisher Chris Braithwaite had been slated to go on trial next week for his coverage of a protest at the Lowell wind project
Founding publisher of the Barton Chronicle Chris Braithwaite stands in front of the newspaper’s offices in Barton after being arrested in June for unlawful trespassing while reporting on a protest at a construction site for a wind energy project on Lowell Mountain. / ELLIOT deBRUYN, Free Press
Written by Terri Hallenbeck
A week before a newspaper publisher was to go on trial, a trespass charge against him was dropped Wednesday related to his coverage of a protest at the Lowell wind project, according to a court document filed by a deputy state’s attorney.
Barton Chronicle Publisher Chris Braithwaite was scheduled for a jury trial Dec. 13 in Vermont Superior Court in Orleans County. A jury had been selected in the case, Braithwaite said.
The trial would have been an unusual case, testing the legal boundaries for how journalists cover news on private property.
Though he said he was surprised to be arrested in the first place, with the trial looming, Braithwaite said he hadn’t expected the dismissal. “I was obviously very surprised,” he said Wednesday.
Braithwaite’s lawyer, Phil White, said he was pleased with the dismissal. “Anytime a reporter is arrested while covering the government’s arrest of protesters, it is a serious matter. It raises fundamental concerns about the freedom of the press to act in its constitutionally recognized role as The Fourth Estate,” White said.
Braithwaite had maintained he was doing his job covering a protest last December — exactly a year ago to the date that the charge was dismissed — on the top of Lowell Mountain as crews were clearing the way for 21 turbines that have since been erected by Green Mountain Power Corp.
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.
The dismissal against Braithwaite came just days after his lawyer received documents he subpoenaed from Green Mountain Power regarding the utility’s internal policy for handling protesters and media coverage of them. Braithwaite said he and White could only get the documents by agreeing to have them sealed, so he could not reveal their content. He said he is asking the court to unseal them.
After reading the documents, Braithwaite said White filed a motion Tuesday to dismiss charges. Before the court ruled on that motion, Deputy State’s Attorney Sarah Baker filed a notice of dismissal with the court Wednesday afternoon.
In his motion to dismiss, White cites the documents as further proof that justice is served by dismissing the charge.
“The timing is fairly obvious,” Braithwaite said.
Neither Baker nor State’s Attorney Alan Franklin returned a call late Wednesday afternoon.
Green Mountain Power spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said the arrest and pursuit of charges had been up to the sheriff’s department and state’s attorney, not the utility. “It really doesn’t affect us,” she said.