By Maxine Bernstein | OregonLive.com | September 28, 2022
A journalist with Oregon Public Broadcasting has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Medford, Medford police and Jackson County, alleging her Sept. 22, 2020, arrest in a city park prevented her from doing her job to cover a police sweep of a homeless camp.
April Ehrlich alleges that a Medford police policy used to force her to leave Hawthorne Park where she was reporting on police activity violates First Amendment rights to free press and free speech and led to her bogus arrest.
At the time, Ehrlich was reporting for Jefferson Public Radio. She now works as a weekend editor for OPB.
Ehrlich was carrying her professional radio equipment and wearing headphones when four police officers approached her, accused her of trespassing, forced her hands behind her back, handcuffed her and then led her away to a police car.
"I'm a reporter! I am a reporter! I'm just doing my job," Ehrlich cried out as bystanders shouted their disapproval, according to police body cam footage of the arrest.
She was booked into jail, where she stayed for several hours before her husband posted bail, she said.
After all criminal charges were dropped, Ehrlich, now 34, filed the federal suit. She is represented by the Portland firm Kafoury and McDougal. Her prominent criminal defense lawyers, father and son Stephen Houze and Jacob Houze, also have joined to represent her in the civil case.
"To send a crew of police to sweep a homeless encampment in a public park and not allow media access was wrong," Ehrlich told The Oregonian/OregonLive. "From early on, I felt wronged. ... I want to make it perfectly clear this should not happen. I hope that officers in Oregon and in Medford and elsewhere take notice of this case and provide reasonable access to reporters covering government actions in a public park."
Attorney Jason Kafoury said Ehrlich's case "strikes at the heart of the constitutional protections that she deserved and all journalists deserve. This isn't how we treat a free press."
The suit alleges the city of Medford and Medford police failed to narrowly tailor restrictions for journalists observing and reporting on police actions. A "media staging area" that morning didn't permit journalists to observe or document the sweep in the park, the suit says.
The suit also alleges Medford police leaders failed to properly train or supervise officers who moved in to arrest Ehrlich. She alleges that police grabbed her wrists, forced her arms behind her back, handcuffed her and kicked her legs and feet before forcibly removing her from the park. Police searched her and confiscated her reporting equipment.
She was charged with trespassing, resisting arrest and interfering with an officer. The city of Medford dropped the charge of interfering with an officer and a municipal court judge last month dismissed the trespassing charge. The city then dropped the remaining count, resisting arrest.
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.
Medford City Manager Brian Sjothun authorized the park closure after drug use, fighting, garbage and nearly 100 tents developed into an "unauthorized urban campground," according to an email cited in the city's legal argument.
Ehrlich's suit seeks noneconomic damages, as well as punitive damages to deter such conduct by Medford police or others. She said she suffered humiliation, frustration, anger and a sense of personal violation.
Just three weeks before her arrest, a wildfire forced Ehrlich to evacuate from her Talent home.
After her arrest, she said she couldn't report on people experiencing homelessness, which had been her beat, or other matters related to her pending criminal charges.
"They effectively shut me down from that coverage," she said. "Not only was my arrest wrong but pursuing charges against me for two years was even worse and added to my trauma."
In a prior statement, Medford City Attorney Eric Mitton stood by the city and police actions, arguing it was well established under Oregon law that journalists can be barred from closed areas alongside the general public.
City spokeswoman Kristina Johnsen released another statement on the city's behalf in response to the lawsuit: "The City's position is that the temporary closure of the park to all members of the public was lawful, and journalists have no special or unique right of physical access to property that has been closed to the general public."
Just days before the sweep, on Sept. 18, 2020, then-Medford Police Chief Scott Clauson sent an email to City Manager Brian Sjothun and other Medford city officials regarding "the plan to clean up Hawthorne Park Monday (September 21, 2020) morning starting at 8 a.m." The email began with a warning that the plan "is not for public or media dissemination," according to the suit.
Ehrlich asked Clauson by email the next day about the department's plans for the encampment in the park, but the chief didn't mention the scheduled closure order in his response, according to Ehrlich's defense lawyers.
When Ehrlich arrived at the park, she asked to see a written copy of the closure order, but was never provided one, according to her criminal defense attorney, Jacob Houze.