A judge dismissed Wednesday the remaining charge against a Daily Collegian photographer who was arrested while on assignment photographing the Oct. 25 riot following a Penn State football team victory over Ohio State.
Citing “unclear” evidence, Centre County Judge David E. Grine dismissed the failure to disperse charge against the photographer, Michael R. Felletter, according to Grine’s ruling.
“The justice system did its part,” Felletter (senior-visual journalism) said. “Hopefully, journalists will feel freer to go out and gather the news without fearing they’ll be charged for breaking the law.”
Now Centre County officials are reviewing Grine’s ruling to determine whether to appeal or re-file the charges against Felletter, Centre County District Attorney Michael Madeira wrote in an e-mail.
Felletter photographed the riot, during which thousands of Penn State students flooded Beaver Canyon. Police initially arrested 14 people in connection with the incident.
Police said Felletter’s photographing caused the crowd to become “more exuberant, excited and destructive,” according to the criminal complaint.
It is unclear whether Felletter was following police orders to disperse when they arrested him, according to the ruling.
Grine ruled it is uncertain whether Felletter’s compliance with police orders to “move along” was adequate when he moved from the street to sidewalk.
Additionally, Grine blamed the rioters for their behavior — not Felletter, according to the ruling.
Felletter’s Attorney, Andrew Shubin, who represented Felletter for free, said the ruling represented a victory for journalists and the First Amendment.
“There’s a bigger principle involved,” Shubin said. “It’s a critical principle–the government needs to leave the press alone.”
Shubin said he was disappointed the county pursued the case and said it was an “attack” on the press.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said Felletter’s case was “extremely rare” because the county did not immediately dismiss the charges.
While it isn’t unusual for police to cite journalists during an event like a riot, LoMonte said authorities normally immediately realize their mistake.
Felletter was originally charged with five counts of failure to disperse and one count of disorderly conduct after he photographed the riot , according to court documents.
The county later re-filed only one charge of failure to disperse against Felletter last semester, according to court documents.
“What was unusual about this case was the authorities had been so persistent even when it became clear the photographer was just doing his job,” LoMonte said.
Shubin agreed and said it was “un-American” to arrest a member of the press for covering a newsworthy event.
“This is the United States, not China,” Shubin said. “We don’t arrest photographers.”
LoMonte said his organization has dealt with various cases involving student journalists and the First Amendment because authorities often do not take collegiate journalists seriously.
“There is a temptation for the authorities to see them as nothing more than another student rather than a professional,” LoMonte said.
Through it all, Felletter said he never thought of giving up his career as a photojournalist because he believes he is “in the right.”
Collegian Editor-in-Chief Rossilynne Skena agreed and said she was “excited” about the recent news.
“We’ve been supporting Mike the entire time,” Skena (senior-journalism) said. “Mike was just doing his job. He was there to record what was happening.”