Jonas Phillips, the West Asheville man arrested for holding an “Impeach Bush/Cheney” sign over the Haywood Road/Interstate 240 overpass in August — a form of protest known as highway blogging — was found not guilty today on charges that he was obstructing the sidewalk and endangering motorists.
District Court Judge James Calvin Hill said that the prosecution had insufficient evidence to prove its case, as none of the arresting officers had observed any pedestrians being blocked by Phillips’ actions, and that he did not believe reactions from motorists who honked their horns was enough to prove his sign a dangerous distraction.
“I’ve been listening to both sides for clear signs that his actions were causing a significant problem for pedestrians and motorists,” Hill said. “Based on what I’ve heard, I can’t find that they did.”
Phillips’ attorney, William Auman argued that he was simply exercising his right to free speech and was targeted for the content of his sign. He said plenty of other legal activities are just as distracting to motorists.
“His activities were no more distracting than cell phones or bill boards,” Auman said. “They [the prosecution] didn’t even bring the sign to court, which could have given us a better idea of the situation. Their evidence clearly falls short.”
Assistant District Attorney Meredith Pressley countered in her closing argument that “the problem was not at all with his content, but his method of delivering it. He [Phillps] said that he chose this method because it gets a lot of attention, which distracted drivers from what should have been their primary duty of operating their vehicles. We’re not saying Mr. Phillips is a bad person, the officers said he was polite, but he did obstruct the sidewalk and endanger drivers at a busy time.”
Donations, many of them from local activists, paid the entirety of Phillips’ legal fees, which amounted to $750. Several sat in the court room, holding miniature American flags that they planned to cover their mouths with if Phillips was found guilty. Instead those flags ended up briefly waved in celebration when Hill announced his verdict.
Outside the courtroom afterwards, Phillips stood with his wife, Kendra Phillips, and their 7-year-old daughter, Oona.
“I’m very, very happy. This has been hanging over us for 7 months,” he told Xpress.
He said he intends to resume highway blogging in the future.
— David Forbes, staff writer