The Vermont Press Association executive board has voted to condemn the confiscation and burning of piles of Seven Days newspapers by protesters who were unhappy with the paper’s coverage of their movement in Burlington. Board members believe the action is ill-informed and reflects a failure to understand the function and role of a free press in our society and country.
The Association urges those responsible to take the time to learn about censorship, the First Amendment, and the right for the general public to enjoy the freedoms of the press and speech provided through Seven Days and other Vermont newspapers.
“It is concerning for all Vermont journalists that this act of censorship could somehow be seen as an appropriate response,” Vermont Press Association President Lisa Loomis said.
The front-page story entitled “Battery Power” was a first-person presentation by a Seven Days writer about interviews and observations about the protest leaders and conditions throughout the more than month-long nightly protests based at Battery Park next to the Burlington Police Station.
The protesters have provided limited messages about their cause other than that they have said they want three Burlington Police officers fired for previous excessive force cases. The city and the police union said those cases have been adjudicated and no further legal action is possible. One officer has resigned.
Seven Days was distributed last Wednesday and by the following day, its circulation department reported an unusually high number of copies had been swept off the newsracks in the Burlington/Winooski area.
The story had a sub-headline of: “How Black Lives Matter Protesters Occupied a Park, Captivated a City — and Got Some of What They Wanted.”
The story was not well received by protest leaders, who directed their followers to collect copies and bring them to Battery Park. The protesters marched that night to the Church Street Marketplace and eventually torched the newspapers on Main Street, just east of Church Street.
The Vermont Press Association said the protest organizers were upset because Seven Days did its job trying to explain the protests and camping at the park. “Newspapers are not mouthpieces for one side or the other,” Loomis said.
“And because one side doesn’t want to fully engage with the media and explain their position doesn’t mean a story will not be written,” she said. The protesters have provided limited messages about their cause and will not speak to journalists about it.
The Vermont Press Association noted there is a certain irony that the protesters are using the last two freedoms under the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment – the right to assemble and the right to petition the government for grievances.
“Yet at the same time they failed to acknowledge two freedoms ahead of those in the First Amendment – the right to a free press and free speech,” Loomis said.
“We are encouraging the protesters to become involved in civic engagement – yes, civic engagement – and that requires communication.”