October: Photojournalist’s arrest is troubling

2011 Columns


On Sept. 19, Clinton Fillinger was arrested while doing his job — perhaps because he was doing it.

The 68-year-old veteran photojournalist, employed by Milwaukee’s WITI Fox6, was filming a house fire from behind yellow police tape.

A Milwaukee police sergeant approached and ordered Fillinger to move back, “all the way back.” Fillinger’s video appears to show him moving backward as he challenges the order: “If the public is out here, I’m allowed to be out here.”

The video shows the sergeant continuing to move Fillinger back as he continues to complain. “Come on, hey, I’m walking backwards,” he says.

By Fillinger’s account, he raised his hand in a defensive motion and made contact with the sergeant. Fillinger ended up on the ground, where he was handcuffed and arrested. He was cited for resisting and obstructing a police officer.

The incident has drawn protests from media groups including the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), the Society of Professional Journalists, and my organization, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. All have written letters to Milwaukee Police Chief Edward A. Flynn expressing their concern.

RTDNA regional director Peggy Phillip noted that Fillinger was “on a public street, behind police and fire lines, within his rights and within reason.” She asked that “all charges against Mr. Fillinger immediately be dropped, and that you conduct an investigation of the incident and bring disciplinary action against the officers involved if necessary.”

The Sept. 23 letter from SPJ regional director Amanda Theisen and then-president Hagit Limor read in part:

“After reviewing the reports and video of the incident shot by Mr. Fillinger, we firmly believe your sergeants clearly violated his First Amendment rights. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the First Amendment allows photojournalists in a public space the right to photograph anything that is in plain view, including police and firefighters.”

My letter to Flynn made similar points on behalf of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, which represents nearly all of the state’s radio and television stations. It asked for a dismissal of charges against Fillinger and an apology from the police department.

“While we respect the difficult job law enforcement do every day to protect our communities, Mr. Fillinger was simply trying to do his job,” the letter said. “He was photographing the scene from behind police lines, on a public street, and in an area where other members of the public had access.”

The letter offered to assist the Milwaukee Police Department “in providing education on proper media practices and First Amendment rights so that similar situations can be avoided in the future.”

In a reply letter to me dated Sept. 29, Chief Flynn said his department has “launched an administrative review” over the incident and is willing to meet with Fox6 administrators “to resolve our differences.”

Flynn added, “We appreciate First Amendment rights, but also have a responsibility to protect life and property at crime scenes.”

A few years back, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council produced a Bill of Rights for state photographers based on a review of applicable state laws. It begins:

“Photographers in Wisconsin have the same rights of access as other citizens: if the general public can photograph or videotape a location or event, the media can too. And, in their recognized role as ‘surrogates of the public,’ members of the media are sometimes afforded special accommodation, such as access to crime and accident scenes and the ability to videotape court proceedings.”

Also, with regard to public areas, “Photographers may freely photograph activity that occurs within public areas, including streets, sidewalks, beaches, parks, town squares, and bus and train stations.” (For the entire Bill of Rights, see wisfoic.org.)

Photographers are expected to follow the law when it comes to the performance of their duties. Others, including the police, should do the same.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Michelle Vetterkind is president and CEO of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association.