Calif. police arrest credentialed student journalist

CALIFORNIA ‘ A college newspaper photographer covering anti-war protests in San Francisco was arrested March 20 after police refused to recognize him as a credentialed journalist.

Sacramento City College student Nick Varanelli, a photographer for The Express student newspaper, was taking photos of an anti-war demonstration when police barricaded Mission Street in downtown San Francisco and arrested 300 protesters, along with Varanelli. Varanelli said he repeatedly produced his Express press pass for the officers, who told him it would not be honored because it was not certified by the San Francisco Police Department. He said police also threatened to confiscate the pass if he continued to show it.

Varanelli was one of more than 1,300 people arrested citywide in San Francisco March 20. After being detained for eight hours, Varanelli was charged with rioting and blocking traffic and released.

‘If I did have a press pass that was approved by the San Francisco Police Department, they possibly would have let me out, but from what I understand it would be extremely hard to get one unless I was from a San Francisco newspaper that wasn’t student-run,’ Varanelli said.

Dewayne Tully, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department, said although the department does issue official press passes, other credentials are honored by officers at events that draw reporters from other cities, such as the protests.

‘We did have some cases where reporters were caught up in a sweep because they failed to disperse,’ Tully said. ‘They were brought to the arrest facility, but we were able to get those reporters released.’

Tully said the standards applied to professional journalists do not always apply to students.

‘Generally we honor credentialed press people who work for an established news agency rather than for a school,’ Tully said. ‘In ordinary circumstances, we would have accommodated the student, but in this case I think we were looking for fully credentialed people from established news agencies.’

Varanelli said he will plead not guilty at his court hearing scheduled for June 18. If he is found guilty, he could face a maximum of one year in jail.

‘I wasn’t part of the protest,’ Varanelli said. ‘I was taking pictures.’

Following the citywide arrests March 20, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sent a letter to the San Francisco chief of police expressing concerns about some of the police tactics used in dealing with the protesters.

‘While the ACLU is continuing to monitor and investigate the police response to the protests, we have received reports of police sweeps where bystanders have been detained and arrested and where clearly designated legal observers have been arrested,’ said Mark Schlosberg, police practices policy director of the Northern California ACLU.

The letter is available online here