Josh Wolf in the eye of the storm (again)

Josh Wolf: journalist, UC Berkeley student, and trouble-magnet.
SFBG file photo

Josh Wolf has landed in hot water again -- this time in connection with his reporting from inside the student occupation at Wheeler Hall on the University of California Berkeley campus to protest budget cuts.

The blogger and videographer was jailed in 2006 after resisting a subpoena to testify before a Federal grand jury because he had taken footage at a 2005 San Francisco protest against the G8 summit. His case was widely reported on, in part because he set a record for jail time served -- 226 days -- for refusing to give up newsgathering materials. Police believed Wolf possessed footage that could be used to press charges for vandalism of a police car and an assault on an officer. He didn’t.

Now the 27-year-old filmmaker, a student at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, faces a possible seven-month suspension in the wake of a student occupation of Wheeler Hall last November 20. Wolf was one of two reporters whose footage from inside Wheeler Hall was included in a Democracy Now! broadcast about the occupation -- but he was the only UC Berkeley student who has said he was there documenting the event as a member of the press.

Wolf says he wore a police-issued press badge around his neck during the Wheeler Hall occupation. Press passes can serve to flag journalists as being in a separate category from civilians in situations involving law enforcement, but displaying one does not always provide a reporter immunity from arrest. The video he shot was integrated into a report produced with independent journalist Brandon Jourdan, who was also inside the building. Wolf and Jourdan were both arrested -- but their footage was widely viewed on Democracy Now!, a national alternative news outlet.

In an “informal resolution” issued April 9, UC Berkeley’s Center for Student Conduct found that Wolf “participated in a disturbance of the peace,” charging him with multiple violations of the student conduct code. Wolf’s role as a journalist is not discussed in the list of charges, making it seem as if he’s being lumped in with the student protesters, despite being there as a reporter.

But the fact that he wears another hat as a journalist clearly hasn’t escaped the campus enforcers of the student conduct code. As part of the disciplinary measure, Wolf was also directed to write a 10-page essay reflecting on a list of questions, including: “How do you consider and reconcile the roles of being a student and being a journalist? At what points does either role become more important to you and why? What are your limits as a journalist? Where and how do you draw lines for yourself in terms of things you will or will not do to pursue professional goals?”

Wolf is being given the option of writing the paper and taking the seven-month suspension (a plea bargain of sorts), or moving on to a formal adjudication process that would entail going before a five-member hearing panel, like a court trial. His plan is to try and get an extension for the informal resolution process as a means of getting the charges dropped altogether.

Berkeley Associate Dean of Students Christina Gonzales, whose office oversees the Center of Student Conduct, was unable to discuss Wolf’s particular case because of a federal law prohibiting public disclosure on such matters. Nonetheless, she offered some general comments. “In the big picture, whenever you’re dealing with conduct, you do take into consideration circumstances,” Gonzales said. “If some one reported, ‘I have special credentials’ or whatever, then [the Center for Student Conduct] will go back as part of their research on any of the cases and try to find out as much information they can to determine if that was a known fact, whatever it is that the student’s telling us.” She stressed that the informal resolution was only a first step in the disciplinary process, and that no formal decision has been made at this point in time.

 “There’s always information that comes from others that’s taken into consideration with the whole picture,” Gonzales added.

Wolf says that when he asked Laura Bennett, Assistant Director at the Center for Student Conduct, whether it would impact the outcome of his case if he submitted a letter from Jourdan confirming that he was there as a reporter, he didn’t get a straightforward response. “Her response was, well, that kind of a letter would simply lead me to have more questions, such as, ‘how did you get into the building, who did what, what happened inside the building,’ a whole bunch of stuff that I’m not inclined to help with for any number of reasons," Wolf said. "Some of this was given on a privileged basis. ... And admittedly it’s like, wait, I went down this rabbit hole before, with the grand jury, and I’m not about to deviate from that path.”

Jourdan, who has contributed to the Huffington Post, Reuters, and the New York Times, among other outlets, told the Guardian that he wrote a letter supporting Wolf in this case. “To the best of his ability, he was there to capture a moment in history,” Jourdan said. Wolf is holding off on submitting the letter for now.

“I think what’s happening in the UC system is there’s a sort of crackdown,” added Jourdan, who faces his own charges after reporting on a March 4 demonstration against budget cuts to education that broke onto a West Oakland freeway. “When journalists are charged with criminal offenses … it’s impeding the work. The information is not free flowing. It’s imperative that journalists be given access to cover something … that in time will be seen as an historic movement.”

Pick up next week's issue or visit us online for a more detailed report.