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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.

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