The inside angle

Independent journalists face consequences after documenting student education protests

Independent journo Josh Wolf finds himself in the middle of another controversy

Josh Wolf's second spell in the hot seat — and other penalties brought down against independent journalists documenting California's defiant student movement — raise some important questions about the freedom of the press at civil disobedience protests.

Wolf, a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, faces a possible academic suspension for violating the student conduct code during a Nov. 20 student occupation of a campus lecture hall. But Wolf says he was there to document the moment as a reporter.

Brandon Jourdan, an independent journalist who was also inside the hall with Wolf, now faces his own set of misdemeanor charges after capturing footage of a March 4 student protest that broke onto a West Oakland freeway. And David Morse, a journalist and Indybay collective member who reported on a raucous Dec. 11 protest at the UC Berkeley chancellor's residence, is now fighting the seizure of his camera and a search warrant issued by UC police for his unpublished photographs — something the First Amendment Project maintains is in violation of state law.

The footage that Wolf and Jourdan took on Nov. 20 and March 4 captured police use of physical force against protesters and documented the widely publicized actions from unique perspectives. The reports were broadcast on Democracy Now!, a popular independent news program that airs nationally on satellite television stations, public access channels, and online.

The gutsy camerapersons aren't the first to face criminal charges. After nine reporters followed several hundred protesters seeking to block construction of the Black Fox Nuclear Power Plant onto private property in June 1979 and were arrested, an Oklahoma court of appeals ruled the First Amendment guaranteed them no immunity from prosecution for trespassing.

"That makes the position of a journalist very difficult, in areas where demonstrators are essentially exercising civil disobedience to make a point," notes Terry Francke, executive director of Californians Aware, a watchdog organization focused on First Amendment issues. "There's no free pass for journalists in the crowd recording what's going on. Their principled position would presumably be yes, like [protesters] risk arrest and consequences for the greater good, they'd risk the same for the sake of giving the public ... a close-up picture of what it's like to be in those circumstances."

Without that journalistic witness, "When you hear stories about what went on in the middle of a police and demonstrators' confrontation ... you'll have two irreconcilable versions, from only directly interested parties," Francke points out.

There's been no shortage recently of civil disobedience on California college campuses, where operations have been ravaged by budget cuts. The Nov. 20 occupation was staged early in the morning at Wheeler Hall, when students barricaded themselves inside to protest a 32 percent fee hike imposed by the UC Board of Regents. While most reporters gathered outside the building or flew over in helicopters, Wolf was inside, and he's the only student to claim being there in a journalistic capacity. He says he wore a police-issued press badge.

Wolf, a video journalist, enjoys a sort of celebrity status because he spent 226 days in jail after resisting a subpoena to testify before a federal grand jury. It started when he shot a film of a 2005 protest in San Francisco, which police tried to obtain because they believed it could help them pinpoint demonstrators who vandalized a police car and injured an officer. Since the case was pursued at the federal level, he was unable to invoke California's shield law protecting journalists from being compelled to reveal unpublished material.