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Milwaukee photojournalist arrested while filming house fire

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A Milwaukee Fox news station and a number of journalism organizations are demanding today that all charges be dropped against…

A Milwaukee Fox news station and a number of journalism organizations are demanding today that all charges be dropped against a veteran photojournalist whose First Amendment rights they say were violated when police arrested him while filming a house fire outside of the police perimeter.

Clint Fillinger, a photojournalist with Fox6 Now for 45 years, was arrested for resisting and obstructing police on Sunday. The 68-year-old, who sustained some minor injuries when he fell to the ground during his arrest, is expected to return to work by the end of the week.

Late Sunday, a police sergeant ordered Fillinger to “back up” about 10 minutes into filming a house fire, according to Fox6. Fillinger was the only person — despite a number bystanders watching — who police asked to move. In the footage, it's clear that Fillinger is filming several feet outside of the police tape.

“But the public is out here,” Fillinger can be heard saying to police in the raw footage taken from his camera. “If the public is out here, I’m allowed to be out here.”

The right to film police in the performance of their public duties in a public space is a “basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment,” a federal appellate court ruled just last month in the case of three Boston police officers who arrested a man filming them with his cell phone.

The National Press Photographers Association, Inc., the Radio Television Digital News Association and Fox management have written letters to Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn to drop all the charges against Fillinger.

Flynn told Fox that he will treat the incident like a citizen's complaint against a police officer and look into it, but in an interview today it was clear that he thought Fillinger was at fault. “If the cameraman had simply complied with the instructions to back off from a working fire, none of this hullabaloo would be taking place,” Flynn told Fox6 News today.

In the video, a police sergeant can be seen walking in front of Fillinger and ordering him to back up. The photojournalist does not stop filming and is walking backwards while asking why he must move and also asserting is that he has a right to be there.

Another sergeant tells Fillinger that it’s for the privacy of residents of the burning home, but the sergeant in question corrects her and tells Fillinger that it’s for his own safety. Fillinger says, “don’t tell me that shit.”

A few seconds later, Fillinger can be heard saying, “Hey, I’m walking backwards here.” The sergeant says, “don’t put your hands on me,” then Fillinger and the camera fall to the ground. In the footage from the fallen camera, the photojournalist is seen in handcuffs and led to a police vehicle by the sergeant.

Fillinger maintains that he put his hand up to balance himself, according to Jim Lemon, the station’s news director.

“How could (Chief Flynn) not see how it escalated? I don’t understand,” Lemon said. “We were following his directives. We were backing up from the scene. The reason this happened was that there was some incidental touch . . . and that sergeant elected to take a 68-year-old man to the ground and handcuffed him.”

Fillinger, who sought medical attention the next day, had some bruising and swelling around his knee, according to Lemon. The station’s high-definition camera — worth $10,000 — was damaged.

Mickey H. Osterreicher, counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, Inc., has sent two letters to Chief Flynn since the photojournalist's arrest.

“I agree with you that this entire incident should not have happened but assert that the blame lies with your officers’ lack of adequate training and their failure to exercise proper discretion,” Osterreicher wrote in response to Flynn’s statement that Fillinger was at fault. “We would hope that common sense will ultimately prevail and once again respectfully request that the Milwaukee Police Department immediately drop all charges, fully investigate the incident, discipline the officers if necessary and most importantly adopt comprehensive guidelines by which to properly train its officers.”

Osterreicher noted that there have been a number of similar cases recently.

In late July, for example, the Suffolk County police on Long Island, New York, arrested freelance photojournalist Phil Datz and charged him with obstruction of governmental administration after he filmed officers on the side of the road arresting suspects who had allegedly led officers on a police chase in Bohemia. The department later dropped the charges.

As recently as a few weeks ago, also in Suffolk County, an emergency medical services official was caught on tape attempting to wrestle a camera away from a freelance videographer. A police officer intervened between the two men and returned the camera to the videographer, but escorted him away.

And on Memorial Day, Miami Beach police allegedly confiscated video-recording equipment from at least one member of the public and a TV photojournalist after both witnessed officers fatally shoot a suspect on a public street.