Former JPR journalist April Ehrlich sues Medford and Jackson County officials over 2020 arrest
In a twist from earlier developments an Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter is back in court, but now as the plaintiff, and the City of Medford as the defendant.
A legal complaint filed on Sept. 20 has Ehrlich (a.k.a April Fonseca) demanding a jury trial seeking damages from an incident two years ago, which she and her attorneys say violated her rights.
On Sept. 22, 2020, Ehrlich was then working with Jefferson Public Radio. She was arrested while trying to cover a Medford Police sweep of a homeless camp in Hawthorne Park.
Bodycam video of the incident shows Ehrlich preparing to record footage of the camp residents and police, and being directed by an officer to keep to a designated media staging site. The complaint says the area was near “the noisy I-5 overpass” and views of the activity were obscured by trees and structures, making it difficult to see or hear what was going on.
When Ehrlich does not comply and moves in to better see and record the sweep, she is told that she is trespassing. She responds that she’s a reporter documenting events, and the officer tells Ehrlich to leave.
The complaint says City of Medford Police Officer Steven Furst then grabbed Ehrlich’s wrist and told her she was under arrest. A Jackson County probation officer, Anna Stokes, took Ehrlich’s other arm and kicked at her feet. Two more officers forced her arms behind her back, and handcuffed her while she protested, repeatedly stating that she was a reporter "doing my job."
Ehrlich’s gear was confiscated and she spent the larger part of her day in jail.
The City of Medford Attorney’s office charged Ehrlich with trespassing, resisting arrest, and interfering with an officer. Ultimately, over the course of nearly two years, all charges against Ehrlich were dismissed, the last two just before her scheduled trial on Sept. 16.
Now Ehrlich and her attorney, Jason Kafoury, have filed suit in U.S. District Court against the City of Medford, Jackson County, and several police and probation officers involved in the 2020 incident.
“I want Medford to know, and I want other agencies that are considering similar tactics to keep the media from documenting public agencies to know that this will not fly,” Ehrlich told KLCC. “This lawsuit is a good way to do that.”
Ehrlich’s case drew the attention of free press advocates and journalist organizations across the globe, including Journalists Without Borders and the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which recorded a dramatic spike in arrests, detainments, and assaults against reporters in 2020, including Ehrlich’s case.
Besides defending free press rights, Ehrlich says it’s to help cover physical and emotional damages from her arrest.
“This happened three weeks after I had to evacuate my home for the Almeda Fire. That was traumatizing in itself,” said Ehrlich.
“And then to have three weeks later, a day spent in jail, where it was disgusting, we’re at the start of a pandemic. There were just so many factors that went into how I was feeling that day, and also what made their actions so much worse.”
Ehrlich’s complaint says because of the officers’ actions on Sept. 22, 2020 she suffered physical pain and may permanently suffer from the “humiliation, frustration, anger, and a sense of personal violation.”
Ehrlich and other critics of officials who arrest and prosecute journalists say it’s part of a broader crackdown against the media, intended to discourage coverage of police actions. She encourages other reporters to read up on their rights, and prepare themselves for similar confrontations with the law. Groups like the Society of Professional Journalists (which Ehrlich has been a part of for years) can provide guidance, as well as many others.
“This is not how we treat the media,” said attorney Jason Kafoury. “We do not live in a fascistic place where you can just arrest people because you don’t like what they’re covering.”
Kafoury expects the trial to run at least a year, which includes "lots of depositions and discovery." He said in this trial, the jury would also determine the amount awarded to Ehrlich as it’s a federal case where damages are not specified.
In a statement sent to KLCC, the City of Medford says the closure of Hawthorne Park was lawful, and journalists have no special or unique right of access to property closed to the general public. It adds other journalists covered the closure from outside the closure area, and Ehrlich was arrested only after refusing orders to leave. The City of Medford says this will be its only statement given the pending litigation.
©2022, KLCC. To see more, visit KLCC.