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Willits photojournalist decries arrest at highway bypass site


The arrest of a freelance photographer at the Willits bypass construction site has sparked allegations that the CHP and Caltrans are impeding First Amendment rights of the press.

Photographer Steve Eberhard's coverage of the ongoing protests is "constitutionally protected" and his arrest Tuesday for trespassing is "absolutely wrong," said Linda Williams, editor of the Willits News, the primary outlet for Eberhard's news photography.

Multiple Northern California newspapers have printed editorials and letters in support of Eberhard, 65, a retired welder fabricator who moved from Santa Rosa to Willits 10 years ago.

But his case is not entirely clear.

"It's an area where there's a lot of gray," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

The press must be accommodated on legitimate news stories but "journalists don't have a First Amendment right to just go wherever they wish, regardless of other considerations," he said.

Caltrans allows access to the bypass property but only with a designated escort.

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

Providing an escort likely is a reasonable accommodation of the press "as long as it is not a charade" aimed at avoiding news coverage, Scheer said.

Eberhard said he always phones for an escort before he steps onto the bypass project property but one is not always available when a newsworthy event is under way.

On Tuesday, protesters bypassed security and locked themselves to construction equipment at about 5:30 a.m.

The designated escorts "don't start work that early," Eberhard said. "I can never get one before 8 a.m."

Eberhard said he phoned for an escort Tuesday morning, then headed onto the site. He said he'd walked about 200 yards onto the project property when he was stopped by one of the CHP officers hired to guard the land.

When the officer told him to leave, Eberhard said he informed him that he had a right to be there and that he was just trying to do his job.

The officer again told Eberhard to leave immediately or he would read an order to disperse or face arrest. Eberhard said he told the officer: "Ok, read me the order" but that another officer arrived and placed him in handcuffs before that occurred.

Eberhard said he'd intended to leave once the order had been read. As the officer grabbed his wrists, "I told them I didn't want to get arrested. I'm ready to leave."

But it was too late.

The officers placed him in cuffs and in the back of a patrol car, an uncomfortable experience.

"I've had four surgeries" on my left shoulder, Eberhard said.

After about an hour, Eberhard said he was driven to the Mendocino County jail, where he was booked and placed in a cell with a man who was intoxicated.

Several hours after his arrest, Eberhard was released.

But that wasn't the end of his problems; he still had to face his wife.

"The last thing she said (Tuesday morning) was 'don't get arrested,'" Eberhard said.

Mendocino County District Attorney Dave Eyster has said he doesn't plan to file charges against Eberhard.

As with all the arrests made during the Willits bypass protest in the last few months, Eyster will leave it to the CHP to pursue an infraction, said his spokesman, Mike Geniella.