The First Amendment debate surrounding The Daily Collegian photographer Michael Felletter’s charges in connection with the Oct. 25 riot spilled over into a Centre County courtroom Wednesday, months after the charges were first filed.
Felletter was bound over for trial on one of five counts of failure to disperse Wednesday morning. His other misdemeanor charge, disorderly conduct, was dismissed in a ruling his defense attorney called “a giant step in the right direction.”
Felletter stands charged with failure to disperse because he “was participating in a riot by taking photographs that would excite the crowd and encourage destructive behavior, and refused to orders [sic] to disperse,” according to the criminal complaint.
Andrew Shubin, Felletter’s attorney, said there is no dispute the photographer was there solely to gather news — and he said police pursued his client because he had a camera.
“My client was targeted, initially, because he was a member of the press,” said Shubin, who is representing Felletter pro bono on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Magisterial District Judge Carmine Prestia said he dismissed the disorderly conduct charge because the crowd’s actions were not Felletter’s fault. The judge dismissed all of the counts of failure to disperse but one, saying a sole charge was sufficient. The press is not above the law, he said.
“The media has no greater right to the scene than the general public,” he said.
Prestia echoed some of Assistant District Attorney Karen Kuebler’s closing arguments. She, too, argued the press does not have more access to events than the public.
“Mr. Felletter cannot hide behind the First Amendment,” she said.
Shubin vehemently disagreed, arguing that if the press is exposed to legal action, reporters and photographers might be reluctant to cover events in the future.
“Without the press, we’re sort of operating in a vacuum,” he said. “Media representatives have a special right to acquire and disseminate news.”
State College Police Officer Nick Argiro testified that during the Oct. 25 riot — a scene of about 4,500 people — he saw Felletter and talked to him three times. Though the officer said he did not conclude the photographer was a member of the media, he said the camera “stood out.”
“There were still people throwing things, cursing at officers,” he said. “Picture this room with another 1,000 people in it. … The disorder was everywhere,” he said.
In their final encounter, the photographer had his head down and was snapping pictures of Argiro, he said.
The officer then stopped the photographer. “I said, ‘You know what? You can’t leave,’ ” Argiro said in court.
He then asked for Felletter’s identification. That very action, Collegian Editor in Chief Terry Casey said, could prevent future photographers from doing their job.
“The next time there is a similar instance, how many photographers would be as willing as Mike was to do the same job — to photograph a potentially dangerous situation?” he said.
During a later interview, Argiro said he told Felletter he might be able to help himself out if he contacted State College Police Capt. Dana Leonard about photographs taken during the riot. The photographer declined.
Argiro told the court people acted more exuberantly and disorderly because the photographer’s camera was on them. When Felletter took photographs of the crowd, they shoved, pushed and swore more than before, Argiro said.
Another officer expressed a different view, however.
Charles Hamilton, of the State College Police Department, said he saw Felletter in the area taking pictures shortly after he arrived.
Hamilton did not order the photographer to disperse, but told him “he was fine where he was.”
The photographer even alerted the officer to people throwing things at him, Hamilton said.
Felletter stepped out of his role as a photographer to help Hamilton, Shubin said, protecting the officer from harm. What’s more, the press needs to be present at events like those of the Oct. 25 riot to document them for the public and police, he argued. Felletter, he said, was performing a vital service.
“The night of the riot, my client was a photographer,” Shubin argued. “My client and other news gatherers weren’t there to throw bottles.”