Oregon journalist’s criminal charges dismissed as unconstitutional; she was reporting on police activity

By Zane Sparling | OregonLive.com | September 8, 2022

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A radio reporter who was arrested while covering a homeless camp sweep in a Southern Oregon park has had her case dismissed after a judge threw out a charge as unconstitutional.

City prosecutors conceded defeat on a charge of resisting arrest shortly after a municipal court judge dismissed the trespass charge against journalist April Ehrlich on Aug. 26, according to records and her lawyer.

Ehrlich now works as the weekend news editor for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Ehrlich was covering the removal of campers from Medford's Hawthorne Park for Jefferson Public Radio on Sept. 22, 2020 when she was surrounded by four police officers and led away with her arms held behind her, according to videos obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

"I'm a reporter! I am a reporter! I'm just doing my job," Ehrlich, now 34, cried out as bystanders shouted their disapproval.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other news agencies, including The Oregonian/OregonLive, called on the city to immediately drop the charges. Instead, both sides spent nearly a year preparing for trial after Senior Assistant City Attorney Katie Zerkel tried to strike a plea deal involving community service.

Roughly 50 other news organizations joined a friend-of-the-court brief condemning Ehrlich's arrest, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press.

Judge William Haberlach granted the city's motion to dismiss the remaining charge on Aug. 30, although the case could technically be reopened.

In a statement, Medford City Attorney Eric Mitton said it was well established under Oregon law that journalists can be barred from closed areas alongside the general public.

"We stand by our legal position and our briefing on that issue," Mitton said. "Our office also believes that the Medford Police Department was legally correct and factually justified in arresting individuals who refused to leave the area that was closed to the public."

City Manager Brian Sjothun authorized the park closure after drug use, fighting, garbage and nearly 100 tents sprouted into an "unauthorized urban campground," according to an email cited in the city's legal argument.

Ehrlich, for her part, has filed a tort claim notice warning Medford of a potential lawsuit. The claim doesn't seek a specific amount of damages.

"I was humiliated and traumatized that day, and for the last two years, the City of Medford has forced me to relive those events by prosecuting me," said Ehrlich, who serves on the board for the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

In his motion to dismiss, defense attorney Jacob Houze argued that Medford's decision to close the park to the public was an unconstitutional violation of Ehrlich's rights under the First Amendment.

"These are rare events. They're outrageous each time it happens," Houze said. "Any more than zero is intolerable in our country."

Ehrlich asked Medford Police Chief Scott Clauson on Sept. 19, 2020 about the department's plans for the encampment in the park, but the chief didn't mention the scheduled closure order in his response, Houze said.

When Ehrlich arrived at the park, she asked to see a written copy of the closure order, Houze said, but was never provided one.

The defense attorney said enforcement of the closure order varied widely, and he highlighted that the officer who first laid hands on the reporter, Sgt. Steve Furst, could be heard on a bodycam video remarking "that JPR girl kept getting in my face."

"That's an insanely condescending and demeaning way to refer to a professional journalist who is doing her job," said Houze.