Letter to Chief Flynn regarding the arrests of photojournalists in Milwaukee

FOIC press releases

November 11, 2011

Chief Edward Flynn
Milwaukee Police Department
951 North James Lovell Street
Milwaukee, WI 53233

Re: Recent Photojournalists’ Arrests

Dear Chief Flynn:

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (“WFOIC”) writes this letter to express its concern about the Department’s recent arrests of photojournalists performing their duties in Milwaukee, including Clinton Fillinger on September 19, 2011, and Kristyna Wentz-Graff on November 2, 2011.

The WFOIC is an organization that “seeks to safeguard access to information that citizens must have to act responsibly in a free and democratic society.” It is currently composed of about 25 board members with a variety of interests and backgrounds, including media, law, and public members with an interest in open government. The WFOIC is also tasked by state law (Wisconsin SCR 61.02) with designating a media coordinator for each state judicial district.

We understand you have already received numerous communications from other organizations objecting to the above arrests, including the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Asssciation, the Wisconsin News Photographers Association, and the National Press Photographers Association.

With this letter, WFOIC joins the concerns these organizations have previously expressed over these incidents. We question whether the arrests were necessary, or even justified. And we are troubled by some of the statements made by the Milwaukee Police Department subsequent to the arrests, such as the disputed claim that Ms. Wentz-Graff was not following police orders.

The WFOIC firmly believes that government that is open and shares information is rewarded with greater public trust and more informed citizen participation in government. The Wisconsin Legislature has concurred, with its findings in the Wisconsin Open Records and Open Meetings laws that an informed electorate is necessary to the very functioning of democracy. Wis. Stat. 19.31, 19.81.

These worthy goals are undermined when representatives of government – in this case, the Department’s officers-arrest journalists lawfully performing their duties and attempting to collect information about public events. Events such as these risk chilling individuals from exercising their First Amendment rights and attempting to obtain information about government and newsworthy events. And perhaps most importantly for the Department, arrests such as these reduce trust and public confidence in the Department.

We join prior commentators for their appreciation of the Department and the work officers to do keep the public safe under often challenging and even life-threatening circumstances. However, the circumstances under which Mr. Fillinger and Ms. Wentz-Graff were arrested were not challenging or lifethreatening, and we hope the Department will take steps to ensure that arrests of journalists lawfully doing their jobs do not occur again.

We concur with the Wisconsin News Photographers Association that the Department sit down with concerned media organizations to amicably discuss these concerns and what steps can be taken to avoid them in the future. We are happy to participate in any such meeting or would be glad to offer any other assistance as the Department works toward a better relationship with the media and respect for the rights of journalists and others exercising their First Amendment rights.

Thank you.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

Bill Lueders, President
Christa Westerberg, Vice President