Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter April Ehrlich (aka April Fonseca) recently filed suit against the City of Medford, claiming that police violated her rights by arresting her as she attempted to provide journalistic coverage for Jefferson Public Radio.
The case raises questions about the presence of journalists during police events and the role of free speech versus security.
What Happened in the Unlawful Arrest Case
In September 2022, Ehrlich attended a Medford Police sweep of a homeless encampment in Hawthorne Park. Police instructed journalists to stay in a pre-designated media staging site.
The media site, however, was near the I-5 overpass. Passing traffic made it difficult to hear what was taking place between police and homeless individuals at the park. In addition, trees and structures obscured the view between the media site and the homeless encampment, preventing journalists from seeing well.
Ehrlich responded to these obstacles by moving closer to the site of the sweep. Body cam footage shows Ehrlich telling police she’s a reporter. In the footage, police then tell Ehrlich she is trespassing and needs to leave.
When Ehrlich did not leave, she was placed under arrest. In the body cam footage, Ehrlich can be heard protesting that she is a reporter “doing my job.”
The City of Medford charged Ehrlich with trespassing, resisting arrest, and interfering with an officer. All three charges were eventually dismissed.
A few days after the last charges were dismissed, Ehrlich and her attorneys Greg Kafoury and Mark McDougal filed suit in a federal district court against the City of Medford, Jackson County, and the police officers involved in her arrest.
The lawsuit alleges that the City of Medford and the other defendants violated Ehrlich’s Constitutional rights “by creating and implementing a policy that prevented her from observing and reporting on the events in Hawthorne Park,” although such reporting is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The lawsuit alleges other violations of Ehrlich’s rights as well.
Ehrlich seeks compensation for physical and emotional damages resulting from her arrest. She also wishes to shine a light on the urgent need for journalist access and the value of a free press.
“I want to ensure no journalist in Oregon or elsewhere has to experience such a stressful and traumatizing experience as the one I had to endure,” Ehrlich said.
Free Press Considerations
Several free press organizations, including Journalists Without Borders and the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, have already focused on Ehrlich’s case. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker included Ehrlich’s arrest in its compilation of arrests, detainments, and violence against journalists in 2020.
Arrests and prosecutions of journalists have increased in recent years, according to U.S. Press Freedom Tracker data. Free press advocates say this pattern indicates a trend to impair the exercise of free press rights by discouraging journalists from covering police actions that may prove unpopular, such as the removal of the homeless camp in Hawthorne Park.
The media staging area provided at Hawthorne Park “did not permit journalists to observe and document government activity” in the park, according to the complaint. Journalists in the media staging area could talk about the sweep of the homeless encampment in general terms. However, they could not document details about the events as they occurred. Because journalists could not observe or document the specifics, they also could not provide information about the specifics.
The City of Medford argues that police actions in Hawthorne Park complied with the law. The city also noted that other journalists remained outside the closed area while providing coverage.
Organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists provide guidance for journalists seeking to cover police actions.
Ehrlich’s attorney, Jason Kafoury, estimates the case will take at least a year to complete, with an extensive discovery phase. The jury will likely be responsible both for assessing liability and for calculating the damages owed if any.
This case raises questions not only about the steps journalists are allowed to take during police actions but the substantive nature of those steps. During the Hawthorne Park sweep, the police did create a special zone for members of the media. That zone, however, was distanced from the actual police activity taking place in the 20-acre park.
Questions about free press rights will likely explore whether journalists are entitled to meaningful, substantive access under the First Amendment—and if so, whether the Hawthorne Park media area provided that access.