Fighting for the freedom to speak

Valentina Fung/Staff

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Since the birth of our country, the rights of a free press have been linked to the survival of democracy. In fact, Thomas Jefferson once suggested that he'd prefer anarchy to a country without newspapers.

And while UC Berkeley hasn't made any moves to shutter The Daily Californian, the Center for Student Conduct and Community Standards' efforts to sanction me for committing journalism is putting our constitutional rights to a free press at risk.

On Nov. 20, 2009, a group of students occupied Wheeler Hall in protest of the impending fee hike and the way the UC spends what money it has. It was my first semester at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, and although we aren't exactly encouraged to focus our reporting on the campus, I knew this was a story I wouldn't want to miss.

Rather than filming the events from the outside landing where dozens of cameras would eventually capture the ongoing confrontations between the police and students, I shot my footage from inside the occupation while about 40 people held fast to the second floor and kept out the police. I wasn't the only reporter in the building - Brandon Jourdan, a frequent contributor to Democracy Now!, was also inside; some of my footage made it into his report for the program.

Neither Brandon nor myself acted as participants; we were there to record what happened, we were not there to hold onto doors and help keep out the police. But we certainly weren't there to assist law enforcement either.

For more than a year now, the Center for Student Conduct has acknowledged that my role was that of a journalist and not a participant. But the campus still insists that I face sanctions for simply being inside the building.

Their position is that I'm a student first and a journalist second. When those responsibilities conflict, student conduct insists my role as a student takes precedence. In other words, when the police ordered the protesters to take down their barricade, it became my responsibility to overpower the protesters and open the door.

In fact, during the first part of my hearing, UCPD Lieutenant DeColoude said that it would've been acceptable for me to physically interfere with the students in order to help the police, provided I used "reasonable force."

I'm not sure how he defines "reasonable force," but in the two years I've spent studying journalism at UC Berkeley, I haven't heard any of my professors talk about when it's appropriate to beat up your subjects.

While I've never believed in objectivity, I do believe that it is my job to remain independent and avoid interfering as much as possible. After all, if journalists are forced to work as agents of the police, then their sources won't trust them and the entire campus community will suffer.

Similarly, if student journalists fear conduct charges for aggressively covering contentious issues on campus, they will become much more cautious, and our community will again suffer. The Supreme Court has ruled that government has a duty to inoculate against such a chilling effect.

Whenever a group of people confronts an authority, the people in power have an incentive to contain and control the story. We've seen it in Egypt, Libya, Iran and even here in the United States.

Earlier this month, at the National Conference for Media Reform in Boston, I had an opportunity to hear Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now!, describe how she and two of her staff were arrested while covering the protests against the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota. Although her team was wearing press credentials that provided them access to the convention floor, the police ignored their passes and arrested them anyway.

"We shouldn't have to get a record when we try to put things on the record," said Goodman during the speech.

These risks, and several unrelated factors, have driven many media outlets away from actively covering the conflict and over to the sidelines. As a result, our understanding of these situations suffers, and without enough information, our democracy is also put at risk.

This isn't Libya, and Moammar Gadhafi doesn't work for the University of California, but when a student is put on trial for committing journalism, it's hard not to see the similarities.


Josh Wolf is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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