As unlikely as it might seem, a relatively tiny road construction project in the small Mendocino town of Willits has morphed into a flash point for press freedom.

In a breathtaking display of poor judgment, the California Highway Patrol on Tuesday arrested a news photographer who was taking photos of protesters at a Caltrans construction project that is building a bypass around Willits. The town, located on Highway 101, is legendary for its traffic tie-ups and the bypass is meant to alleviate them.

But there have been regular protesters at the site since before the project began in February. They claim it ruins the area's beauty and that its $200 million price tag, tiny by Caltrans standards, is too high.

Protesters surround an area in Willits attempting to prevent Caltrans from starting construction on a highway bypass on June 19. The photographer who took
Protesters surround an area in Willits attempting to prevent Caltrans from starting construction on a highway bypass on June 19. The photographer who took this photo, Steve Eberhard of the Willits News, was arrested at another protest related to this construction project on Tuesday. (Steve Eberhard, Willits News)

The irony in that argument is that the CHP has spent $1 million trying to keep the protesters away from the site, but to little avail.

On Tuesday, the protesters again had sneaked onto the construction site early in the morning, but the only person arrested was Steve Eberhard a longtime freelance photographer for the Willits News, the twice-weekly local newspaper.

He was arrested as he approached the area where some protesters had chained themselves to construction equipment. None of the protesters had been arrested, but as soon as Eberhard approached he was cuffed and led away, and his camera equipment was taken from him. The media have been told they are trespassing at the site unless they have a Caltrans escort with them.

But Caltrans only provides escorts during "regular business hours" and sometimes not even then -- especially if there's something worth photographing.

The CHP, meanwhile, has told protesters that journalists will be the first arrested, presumably so that their efforts will go undocumented. (As if anyone with a phone isn't a photographer these days.)

The CHP also has harassed journalists even when they have a Caltrans escorts or are standing in a public right of way.

For the record, Eberhard is a senior citizen, a retiree, a veteran and has valid press credentials.

It would appear the CHP had decided that since it can't stop the protesters, the next best thing is to stop the media from covering them.

Well, possibly, except for that whole U.S. Constitution thing.

We are glad to hear the district attorney will likely dismiss a trespass charge against Eberhard because of a provision in the trespass law that exempts people who "are engaging in activities protected by the California or United States Constitution." You know, like a journalist covering a protest.

The protests will continue. Trying to keep the media away is pointless and self-defeating. In fact, the CHP's misguided policy has already caused far more media attention than Eberhard's photos could have on their own.

The normally professional CHP has lost all sense of direction here. Arresting the messenger is the worst imaginable policy; Caltrans and the CHP must create a better one.