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Arthur Kohl-Riggs, a citizen journalist in Madison, Wisconsin, has been covering the capitol for the past 15 months with his video camera, often breaking big stories.
But for the last 10 days, he’s had a hard time doing his work because the capitol police had confiscated the tool of his trade.
Finally, this morning, they gave it back to him.
“It’s a relief,” he says.
On March 13, Kohl-Riggs was at the county courthouse covering the trial of some capitol protesters known as the Rotunda 13. He then went over to the state assembly.
He noticed that black plastic sheets had been placed on the windows of the doors into the gallery so no one could see in or out.
He suspects that’s because the Republicans who run the assembly were angry that he had filmed Republican State Assemblyman Joel Kleefisch voting for several other legislators on Feb. 22, which was an embarrassment to the Republicans who have complained so much about voter fraud.
Kohl-Riggs sat in the gallery “with my camera on the floor for an hour or two and had no problem,” he recalls. But then he says a new assembly page came on and told him he had to put the camera away or else leave.
“I said it was my most valuable possession, and she said, no you have to leave. I said it was my right to have a camera, and the rules were, ‘No filming allowed,’ not, ‘No cameras allowed.’ She repeated that I had to put it away or leave, so I put it under my sweater.”
A few minutes later, while Democratic legislators on the floor were objecting to the Republican war on women, a police officer approached him and asked him to leave.
“I said, ‘I appreciate you asking. But I feel it’s my right to be here.’ ”
The police officer evidently called for back up, and another police officer arrived and told Kohl-Riggs he had to leave and threatened to carry him out if he didn’t cooperate.
Kohl-Riggs reluctantly got up and went out into the hall with the officer, who said, “You are being detained. We’re investigating you for disorderly conduct.”
After Kohl-Riggs objected that he was doing nothing wrong and that he should be allowed back into the assembly, one officer put Kohl-Riggs in handcuffs and took him downstairs to the capitol police’s station and gave him a disorderly conduct ticket.
The police also held his camera “as evidence.”
A few days ago, Kohl-Riggs returned to the capitol police station with a letter from his lawyer demanding to get his camera back. But they refused to do so.
This morning, Kohl-Riggs had his initial court appearance, where he pleaded not guilty. At that appearance, a capitol police officer told him he could go get his camera back, which he did.
“This was ten days without my camera and without access to the footage that was on the camera”—the footage from the jury trial of the Rotunda 13. The only other person filming the trial was from the rightwing MacIver Institute, and that footage got on Fox News, Kohl-Riggs says. So the reporting of the trial was biased, he argues, because he couldn’t show any other side to it.
“I didn’t have access to newsworthy material because it was being suppressed by the capitol police,” he says.
Kohl-Riggs stresses how important the camera is to him.
“My camera is my protection,” he says. “I don’t wear a suit. I don’t have a position in the capitol. So if it comes down to a legislator saying one thing and I’m saying the other, a camera helps level the playing field.”
His next court appearance is April 20.
“I expect the DA to drop the charges,” he says. But he adds: “I’d be happy to take it to a jury trial.”
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Romney May Fall Into Trap of Picking Santorum for VP."
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