Medford officials should drop charges against reporter arrested at Hawthorne Park

Arresting reporters for doing their jobs is one of the hallmarks of a totalitarian dictatorship.

So it is disappointing to hear that a journalist covering the eviction of a homeless camp at a Medford, Ore., park was arrested while she tried to observe police actions.

April Ehrlich, a reporter with Jefferson Public Radio, and vice president of the SPJ Oregon pro chapter, was among 11 people arrested at Hawthorne Park Sept. 22.

Ehrlich was cited for trespassing, interfering with police and resisting arrest.

I join with SPJ Oregon in calling for Medford city officials to withdraw the charges and to review the actions of police that day in the park, as well as take steps to ensure that officers respect First Amendment rights.

She had gone to the park to cover the city’s eviction of homeless people camping at the park. This happened at the time the Almeda Fire had ravaged the area, and one of the things Ehrlich was there to find out was if any of the people at the homeless camp had fled the fire.

While interviewing people, she was arrested by several police officers, despite her identifying herself as a journalist and, according to JPR, not interfering with the evacuation order.

City officials claim that the park was closed and Ehrlich refused to go to a media staging area when ordered to do so. But the staging area, according to JPR, was at a place where journalists could neither see nor hear what was going on, nor could they talk to the people being evicted.

Journalists serve as witnesses to give the public the information they need to hold government accountable. It is a little hard to do that from a staging area that is far removed from what public servants are doing in the name of the people.

Ehrlich and other legal observers were in a place where they could best see what was happening, and could accurately, if they had been allowed, to say how the eviction was handled. Corralling the press to a place where they couldn’t see the action, and arresting those who could does little, if nothing, to inspire confidence that the eviction was handled in a legal, humane and dignified manner.

The mere fact that Ehrlich was arrested throws what happened in the park into serious question.

Again, I urge Medford city officials to drop the charges against Ehrlich and other legal observers, and commit to being more transparent.

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