A freelance photographer who was arrested while covering protests against the controversial Willits highway bypass last summer is suing Caltrans and the CHP, alleging they violated his constitutional rights.

"I want to protect the First Amendment. That's my main incentive," said Steve Eberhard, 65, a retired welder-fabricator who moved to Willits from Santa Rosa 11 years ago.

The lawsuit includes allegations of false arrest, false imprisonment, civil rights violations, unnecessary delay in processing the arrest and intentional infliction of emotional harm.

CHP and Caltrans officials said they cannot comment on the case.

San Francisco attorney Duffy Carolan, a media law specialist and counsel to dozens of California newspapers, is representing Eberhard at no charge to him.

"It's very important for the press to have access to the area and the ability to monitor the CHP's response to the ongoing protest," Carolan said, explaining why she took the case pro bono.

Protests began early last year as Caltrans started work on the $210 million, 5.9-mile Highway 101 bypass project. Demonstrators have been arrested after venturing into the construction zone, occupying trees on the site and chaining themselves to heavy equipment.

Opponents say the project is unnecessary and damaging to the environment. Supporters and Caltrans say the project is critical to alleviating traffic congestion in downtown Willits, through which Highway 101 currently runs.

The project also has generated lawsuits from environmental groups and citations from government agencies, which have slowed, but not stopped progress on the bypass.

Work on the project resumed last week, Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie said.

Eberhard, who has had two photos published in The Press Democrat, was arrested in July after walking onto a construction site at the north end of the bypass project. He said he was handcuffed, booked and detained for several hours before being released. No criminal charges were filed against him.

Eberhard said he would have left on his own, but a CHP officer abruptly arrested him while another was looking up the wording of a standard order to disperse.

At the time of Eberhard's arrest, Caltrans officials defended what happened.

They said they did not prevent Eberhard from covering the months-long protests, but that he and other media representatives were required to wait for an escort because there was construction underway.

"It's not safe to have people wandering around a construction site, even when there's no construction" in progress, Frisbie said at the time.

First Amendment experts say the press must be accommodated when covering legitimate news stories, but that it doesn't give them a right to go wherever they wish.

Eberhard had been warned several times before his arrest that he could not enter the construction zone without a press escort, Eberhard and Caltrans have said.

Eberhard said he always contacted Caltrans before going out but that an escort was not always available and that he would have missed the protest activities had he waited.

Carolan, the attorney, said the arresting officers knew Eberhard and why he was there. She said they arrested him to prevent him from covering newsworthy events and, "in their minds, to teach him a lesson."

"Now we are going to teach them one," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.