Wednesday, December 8, 2021

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Graham, NC 27253
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Newspapers file ‘emergency appeal’ to require Alamance courtrooms to be open

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AFTER PUBLICATION OF DEC. 10 EDITION:

[MOTION TO OPEN ALAMANCE COUNTY COURTROOMS: UPDATE AT 7:00 P.M. DECEMBER 10, 2020: The Alamance News and two other news organizations that were denied access to Alamance County courtrooms this week and last by visiting district court judge Fred Wilkins have now filed an emergency appeal to the North Carolina Court of Appeals seeking to overturn Wilkins’ closure of courtrooms to the public and press.

[The “petition for emergency writ of mandamus, or in the alternative, prohibition, to require the criminal courts of Alamance County to be open to the public and the press,” filed Thurs., Dec. 10, seeks to overturn the courtroom closures imposed by one district court judge.

[Also filed was a 2nd motion, seeking an expedited hearing because “this matter [is] one of utmost and compelling public interest.” In addition to The Alamance News, the other parties are The (Raleigh) News & Observer and Triad City Beat, a Greensboro alternative weekly paper.  UPDATE ON FRI., DEC. 12: the Court of Appeals has notified the newspapers’ attorney that the motion to expedite has been rejected.  The rejection took place on the same day that state supreme court justice Cheri Beasley also issued an order suspending most in-person court appearances throughout the state for 30 days.

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[Trials of 23 defendants arrested at an October 31 march and rally in Graham are set to begin Mon., Dec. 14. One of the first up is the trial of Tomas Murawski, a reporter with The Alamance News, who was taking photos of the event when he was charged with resisting an officer. UPDATE ON DEC. 12: Murawski’s and other defendants will apparently be included in the statewide postponement of all in-person court appearances.

[Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr. was initially held in contempt and forcibly removed from Wilkins’ courtroom and placed in handcuffs Tuesday, Dec. 8, when he tried to explain why courtroom access for the press and public is required under the N.C. and U.S. Constitutions, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The judge later withdrew the contempt citation with a requirement that the journalist be escorted out of the courthouse.]

Print edition of the story (from Dec. 10 print edition), with more background, follows:

The Alamance News and two other news organizations that were denied access to Alamance County courtrooms this week and last by visiting district court judge Fred Wilkins are planning an “emergency appeal” to the North Carolina Court of Appeals seeking to overturn Wilkins’ closure of courtrooms to the public and press.

In addition to the weekly newspaper, the other parties are The (Raleigh) News & Observer and Triad City Beat, an alternative weekly in Greensboro.

Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr. was initially charged with contempt by Wilkins this week when he attempted to explain the three newspapers’ motion about the need to open his courtroom to allow the press and public to be able to view the proceedings.

Last Wednesday (December 2), Wilkins excluded the press from covering a hearing during which the district attorney’s office sought to modify the conditions of bond for Rev. Greg Drumwright, the organizer of an October 31 march and rally that was ended by law enforcement.

There were two episodes when pepper spray vapors were used at the end of the march and to end the rally at the Historic Court House.

Officers with the Graham Police department initially used pepper spray to force the crowd to disperse out of the streets at the conclusion of the march, contending that Drumwright had agreed that the city’s streets would remain open after the marchers passed.

Later, deputies with the Alamance County sheriff’s office halted the rally, contending that the organizer had violated the terms of a permit that had been issued/granted for the rally by bringing gas cans and a gas-powered generator onto the courthouse grounds in violation of the permit. Those officers and the Graham police subsequently used pepper spray vapors to force the crowd to disperse from the courthouse grounds and the downtown area.

A total of 23 people were arrested on October 31, including Tomas Murawski, a staff writer with The Alamance News, whose first court appearance is scheduled for Monday. Murawski was one of eight people arrested by the Graham Police Department; the sheriff’s office arrested another 15 who failed to disperse after being told to when the rally was ended.

“Under judge Wilkins’ current rules – which purport to allow only victims, defendants, and attorneys within his courtroom – even I, as our reporters’ editor and publisher, would not be allowed into the courtroom,” Boney observed.

Boney said the three news organizations hope to file the emergency motion this week in time for the Court of Appeals to rule prior to next week’s court dates for the October 31 defendants. Murawski’s court date is Monday; many of the other defendants are due in court on Tuesday and Wednesday.

While court officials have not repeated the statement recently, it was initially said that Wilkins had been brought in as a special visiting judge to hear many of the “protest” cases associated with Drumwright’s and other demonstrations.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has recently made an important First Amendment decision that emphasized government may not curtail religious liberty in the name of pandemic regulations. In the same way, we do not think there is a legal way to eliminate constitutionally protected access to courts for the public and press, simply by claiming ‘pandemic, pandemic,” Boney said.

North Carolina’s Constitution has a “simple and straightforward protection,” Boney said, quoting Article I, section 24. “All courts shall be open.”

“We don’t believe a judge has any legal authority to simply disregard that important safeguard, which protects both the public and the press,” Boney said.

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