August: Stop treating photography as a crime

2012 Columns

Michael P. King

I don’t know what it’s like to wear handcuffs, or to be threatened with arrest. I hope I never do. But that could happen, because carrying a camera puts a target on one’s back these days.

Photography and videography, for news gathering or fun, are garnering lots of attention from police and other public officials. They know there are more cameras in the hands of the public than ever before. Citizens who were once simple bystanders to arrests and incidents are now filming them. And political gaffes are quickly finding their way onto YouTube and blogs.

Public officials find it difficult to navigate this digital world. They understandably want to minimize potential embarrassments and liabilities. But that’s exactly what their tactics are causing.

In November, photojournalist Kristyna Wentz-Graff of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was arrested while photographing protesters on a public street. The Milwaukee Police Department initially claimed its officers had no idea she was a journalist — despite the press identification badge around her neck, and the multiple professional-grade cameras hanging from her shoulders.

Just a few months earlier, Clinton Fillinger of WITI Fox 6 in Milwaukee was forcibly taken to the ground and arrested while attempting to film a house fire from a public sidewalk. Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn blamed the arrest on Fillinger, saying, “If the cameraman had simply complied with the instructions to back off…none of this hullabaloo would be taking place.”

But Fillinger’s footage proves he was backing away rapidly when police pushed him to the ground. Moreover, other members of the public far closer to the fire scene than Fillinger weren’t arrested or told to leave.

Both photojournalists were released from custody shortly after their arrests. The charges against them were eventually dropped.

But that doesn’t make it okay.

In both cases, the arresting officers succeeded in their intent: to put a stop to legally permissible photography. And ultimately, they weren’t held accountable for their abuses of power.

The “Wisconsin Photographer’s Bill of Rights,” produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, reminds us that journalists — with no greater and no fewer rights than the general public — are our “surrogate” eyes and ears. What happened to Fillinger and Wentz-Graff happened to all of us. Their arrests denied the public’s right to see and know.

This is part of a larger problem. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear of a citizen journalist or photography enthusiast being told they cannot record a public meeting, or that snapping pictures of public sites which interest them is illegal for security reasons.

For the record, the state’s Open Meetings Law directs public bodies to “make a reasonable effort to accommodate any person desiring to record, film or photograph the meeting,” so long as this is not disruptive. And in most cases citizens are free to photograph or film in any public place.

The trend toward restricting the ability to film and take pictures is spreading like an invasive species. When a few unprofessional public servants get away with quashing people’s liberties and limiting the public’s right to know, it plants a seed in the minds of their colleagues that they might be able to get away with it too.

It’s up to all of us to ensure that seed doesn’t grow.

The first step is easy: Pull out your camera on a public street, and enjoy capturing what you see.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Michael P. King is a photojournalist at the Wisconsin State Journal and secretary for the Wisconsin News Photographers Association and the National Press Photographers Association.