Jefferson Public Radio reporter filed claim for damages related to arrest while reporting
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
The city of Medford is leaning on a legal argument rejected by its own municipal court in response to a federal lawsuit filed by former Jefferson Public Radio (JPR) reporter April Ehrlich. Ehrlich, who was working at the time for Ashland-based JPR, was arrested for entering a city park police had declared closed.
On Oct. 25, the city denied all wrongdoing in an answer filed in U.S. District Court and continued to assert that its closure of Hawthorne Park on Sept. 22, 2020, for the forced evacuation of a homeless camp was justified as a public health measure.
This same argument failed to gain a conviction in a related criminal case against Ehrlich that was dismissed in August.
Ehrlich, whose case was filed under her legal name April Fonseca, said the city failed to articulate why they should restrict the right to gather in a public space for an enforcement action affecting a narrowly defined group of people. Medford argued there was no such standard to fulfill and the closure conformed with city policies, and was further justified by alleged drug abuse, assaults and the accumulation of waste at the homeless camp.
However, Medford Municipal Court Judge William Haberlach affirmed Ehrlich’s argument and dismissed a charge of trespassing Aug. 26. The city could no longer support a remaining charge of resisting arrest and asked for dismissal of the case Aug. 30.
Despite Haberlach’s ruling, Medford continued to assert the lawfulness of the park closure in the Oct. 25 filing, saying Erhlich was arrested for being somewhere no member of the general public had a right to access, and her being a reporter was no exception.
“Any interruption in Plaintiff’s journalistic activities was a result of her refusing to leave the closure area and go to a nearby sidewalk or media staging area, as all other journalists present that day had done,” said the filing.
When asked for clarification about the city’s legal argument, Medford City Attorney Eric Mitton referred to a previous press release which said, due to the nature of the pending litigation, they would have no further comment on Ehrlich’s lawsuit.
Reporter defies park closure
Ehrlich filed suit Sept. 20 seeking unspecified damages for her arrest during the 2020 park evacuation, which she had been coving as part of a larger series of articles regarding fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and local wildfires. Though reporters were instructed to remain in a staging area outside the park, Ehrlich entered the park to conduct interviews.
According to body camera footage of her arrest, Ehlrich told police she had a legal right to be in the park, however, officers said the park was closed to the public and she would be charged with trespassing if she remained. After Ehrlich refused to leave, she was restrained by multiple officers, placed under arrest and handcuffed.
The lawsuit alleges wrongdoing by the city of Medford, City Manager Brian Sjothun, and city police officers Scott Clauson, James Barringer, Steven Furst, Michael Todd, Randal Jewell, Lt. Trevor Arnold and Sgt. Geoffrey Kirkpatrick. It also accuses Jackson County and county Probation Officer Anna Stokes, who similarly denied wrongdoing in a separate court filing Oct. 25.
Ehrlich has requested a jury trial. In their filings, defendants requested dismissal of the lawsuit, and a hearing to consider their arguments is scheduled for Dec. 12 before U.S. District Court Judge Mark Clarke.
Park closed, but not to all
In addition to asserting the alleged lawfulness of the park closure, Medford claims Ehrlich had no special access to the park as a reporter, citing case law that says the First Amendment does not grant journalists the right to enter a place from which the general public is excluded. Medford has publicly made this argument multiple times since Ehlrich’s arrest, including a Sept. 28 press release in response to Ehrlich’s lawsuit.
Ehrlich claims there were multiple instances of the general public being allowed to enter the park during the closure, such as the director of parks and recreation, a city councilor, and volunteers helping campers clean up and gather belongings.
“Police and/or probation officers stated that while people were permitted in the park to remove possessions or help others, people were not permitted in the park to document or observe events,” said Ehrlich’s lawsuit, which claims this was among violations of her 14th Amendment right against unequal treatment under the law.
Medford’s Oct. 25 filing admitted it gave park access to “members of the general public actively helping campers pack and remove their belongings,” but said this was a “temporary-and-narrow exception” to the closure of Hawthorne Park to the general public. Medford said this exception was allowed under a state law which says, during the evacuation of an unlawful campsite, local governments may arrange for outreach organizations to provide assistance to campers.
An operational plan for the evacuation, submitted to the court as part of Ehrlich’s former criminal case, said Medford had coordinated with “local outreach and shelter organizations” to help connect homeless individuals with appropriate resources. The Oct. 25 filing said this decision was “neither arbitrary and capricious, nor otherwise unlawful,” and was consistent with state law.
Medford claims Ehrlich bears liability
Medford went on to argue that any injuries or damages suffered by Ehrlich during her arrest, including allegations of rough handling by officers, were the results of her own failure to avoid such losses, and that Ehrlich had provided the court with insufficient evidence to demonstrate the city had caused her harm. Medford requested dismissal of the suit on these grounds, and because any alleged actions taken by city employees would be barred from litigation due to qualified immunity, which holds that public employees cannot be personally sued if allegations stem from the performance of official duties.
The city also denied claims that Ehrlich’s arrest was an attempt to suppress news coverage of the evacuation, as well as the claim the use of a staging area for reporters away from the evacuations was an attempt to impede journalists.
“(Defendants deny) that the requirement to stay outside of the closure area prevented journalists from observing or reporting on the closure operation,” said the defendants, “or that the First and Fourteenth Amendments and applicable case law provide journalists physical access into areas closed to the public and/or a Constitutional right to gather information above any member of the general public.”
Ehrlich’s arrest has been condemned as an attempt to suppress free speech by media rights organizations such as Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and the Oregon Chapter for the Society of Professional Journalists, of which Ehrlich is a board member. In response to a 2021 letter by RCFP asking for dismissal of Ehrlich’s criminal case, Mitton said the city would not file a case it did not believe was grounded in the evidence, adding his office was prohibited from publicly debating the merits of the case or municipal court prosecution in general.
Ehrlich left JPR in November 2021 to join Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) in Portland, where she now serves as weekend editor.