The issue of a journalist’s behavior in situations of extreme peril is always a thorny issue. Should they document a man’s suffering or try to help it? Where do journalistic obligations stop and human obligations begin? Will anybody notice if they Photoshop some more smoke into this thing?
(Oh, we’re sure these charges have absolutely nothing to do with pictures of policemen blindsiding students with pepper spray. Perfectly coincidental.)
But for Michael Felletter, a photographer for the DAILY COLLEGIAN at Penn State, his mere presence at a riot became a matter of a much different issue: criminality. The PSU student originally faced charges of disorderly conduct and failure to disperse upon official order from the police, but the charges were dropped last week when the charging detective missed a court date. End of story? Oh, no, no sir; the Centre County DA, Michael Madeira, re-filed the same charges Wednesday, keeping this farce alive.
The police maintain that this isn’t a First Amendment issue, and that Felletter just wouldn’t leave when told to. That’s fine, in theory. Perhaps there’d be some merit to that claim if it weren’t for one giant honking legal misstep in the filing of the criminal complaint, one that the prosecuting attorneys probably want back. Here’s the phrase in question:
Collegian editors maintain it is a free-press issue because of phrasing in the criminal complaint, which alleges that Felletter “was observed participating in a riot of several thousand people by taking photographs which excited the crowd and encouraged destructive behavior.”
“Participating in a riot… by taking photographs”?! Whoever wrote that must be a masochist, because there isn’t a judge in America (except for one) who would let a leap in logic like that without Mutomboing it into next week.
Further complicating matters for the police is the fact that the Judicial Affairs office at PSU has already cleared Felletter of any wrongdoing; if the police think they can convince a judge otherwise without a veritable mountain of undiscovered hard evidence of specific misbehavior, they need to seriously reassess their priorities and time management, because that’s really not happening.