SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The California Highway Patrol damaged a news photographer's reputation by arresting him as he covered a protest against a Northern California highway project, the newspaper's longtime publisher testified Tuesday.
On the second trial day of photojournalist Stephen Eberhard's false arrest suit against the CHP, Debbie Clark testified that the assault and arrest tarnished his reputation and that of the newspaper. Clark retired two years ago after 33 years at The Willits News, the small community's weekly newspaper of record.
"It seemed as though he had been targeted, and we were concerned if he would be able to continue to cover the news," Clark said. A CHP officer acknowledged in court Monday that he pushed Eberhard away from a construction zone in May 2013.
Clark said that covering the Willits Bypass Project - a $300-million, 6-mile rerouting of Highway 101 in Mendocino County - was crucial to her newspaper and community.
"This was one of the largest Caltrans projects in the state to be undertaken in many decades," Clark said in court. "It also had a great impact environmentally due to the fact that it was going to be impacting one of the greatest wetlands in the state of California."
When a SWAT team descended on the small town in 2013 to remove environmental protesters occupying the site, reporters had to place themselves in harm's way to cover the major news event, she said.
The confrontation caused the newspaper to seek an arrangement with the state Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, to allow its reporters access to the site to cover news events, including construction milestones and protests.
In response, Caltrans drafted a policy requiring members of the media to contact a Caltrans official to escort them on the site. Reporters also had to wear hardhats and reflective vests while on site.
"Caltrans was supposed to make every effort to come to the site and be with a reporter when we called," Clark testified. "We said we would do everything we could to accommodate this arrangement, but news doesn't always happen between 9 and 5."
Eberhard was arrested at about 6:30 a.m. on July 23, 2013, as he tried to snap photos of two protesters who had locked themselves to construction equipment.
Deputy Attorney General Micah Osgood asked Clark if anyone at Caltrans ever told her the media access policy applied only during business hours.
"No one told us that it didn't apply around the clock," Clark replied.
Osgood showed Clark an email that Caltrans District 1 Public Information Officer Phil Frisbie Jr. sent to her and other newspaper employees on May 20, 2013.
In the email, Frisbie voiced concern that Eberhard had entered the construction site at around 7 a.m. to photograph and interview protesters who had locked themselves to equipment that morning.
Eberhard had left a message with his Caltrans escort, who was not immediately available to join him on the site, according to the email.
"I want to make it clear again that we will not ask CHP to provide Steve with special treatment," Frisbie wrote in the email. "If he is in our construction area and not escorted, he is trespassing and subject to arrest like anyone else."