A judge in southern Oregon has dismissed all charges against a public radio journalist who was arrested two years ago while covering the police removal of houseless campers from a public park.
The dismissal of the two misdemeanor charges — trespass and resisting arrest — against Oregon Public Broadcasting journalist April Fonseca Ehrlich came shortly before her trial was set to begin. The Reporters Committee and a large coalition of news outlets and press freedom groups engaged in extensive advocacy efforts urging the city of Medford, Oregon, to drop all charges stemming from Ehrlich’s September 2020 arrest at a downtown park while she was reporting.
“We are relieved that the court dismissed these misguided charges against April Ehrlich, who was reporting from the scene of a law enforcement operation when she was arrested,” said Ellen Osoinach, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Oregon. “Communities expect and deserve this kind of on-the-ground, local reporting, and the city of Medford’s attempt to stifle the flow of information to the public by arresting and prosecuting a journalist violated both the U.S. and Oregon constitutions.”
Police arrested Ehrlich on Sept. 22, 2020, after she refused to follow police instructions to move to a “media staging area” while covering evictions at Hawthorne Park for NPR affiliate Jefferson Public Radio. As Jefferson Public Radio said in a statement after her arrest, the staging area was located “where it was not possible to adequately see or hear interactions between police officers and campers, or gather audio.”
Ehrlich was charged with second-degree trespassing, and resisting arrest.
The Reporters Committee, joined by a coalition of 48 media organizations, first called on the city of Medford to drop the charges against Ehrlich last October. In a letter to Acting City Attorney Eric Mitton, the news media coalition emphasized that Ehrlich was engaged in lawful newsgathering protected by the First Amendment when she was arrested and charged with misdemeanor crimes.
The Reporters Committee later sent two follow-up letters in support of Ehrlich’s efforts to dismiss the charges. The third and final letter to the Medford County Municipal Court, sent in August and joined by 52 news media organizations, specifically argued that the trespass charge was unconstitutional and urged the judge to grant the journalist’s motion to dismiss it.
“Ms. Fonseca’s prosecution for routine newsgathering — documenting the clearing of an encampment in Hawthorne Park — threatens to have a chilling effect on all Oregon journalists who cover housing policy, the management of public land, and issues affecting individuals who live outdoors on public property,” the Reporters Committee’s letter stated.
After receiving the media coalition’s letter, Judge William Haberlach of the Medford County Municipal Court indefinitely postponed a hearing to consider Ehrlich’s motion to dismiss that had been scheduled for Aug. 19, 2022. A week later, Judge Haberlach issued a bench order granting the motion and dismissing the criminal trespass charge. Days later, the city of Medford asked the court to also dismiss the charge of resisting arrest, which it did the same day.
“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,” Ehrlich said in a press release after the charges were dismissed. “My arrest and prosecution were an attack on our Constitution’s First Amendment and our democratic freedom of the press.”
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.