N.Y. high school principal confiscates tape of school fight

A high schoolstudent in New York who videotaped the aftermath of a school fight for a newsreport says a school security officer confiscated his tape and the school hasrefused to return it.

Ken Smalt, who was filming the incident for a newsbroadcast on a local cable access channel, said the administration told him thathis tape was confiscated because he was infringing on students’ rights byvideotaping them. Smalt said the school has not specified which rights heviolated.

The 17-year-old junior at Ithaca High School said he isprepared to file a stolen property report with local police if the school doesnot return his tape.

Smalt said he has the right to take photographs onthe school campus, and that the school handbook does not specify thatvideotaping is not allowed.

“What it says in the handbook is thatstudents have the right to take pictures for news purposes as long as it doesn’timpede on students’ rights or affect the learning environment,” Smaltsaid.

School administrators did not respond to requests forcomment.

Smalt said his English media class produces news andentertainment segments for Time Warner Cable’s local public access channel. Forone of the class projects, Smalt decided to report on a fight between two groupsof students. He said that he learned about the fight the day before it occurredand checked out one of the school’s video cameras and borrowed a friend’svideotape.

Smalt said he did not videotape the actual fight because oftape problems, but he was able to cover the aftermath, including students beingtaken to the principal’s office and the arrival of the localpolice.

Smalt said he was interviewing students through an office windowwhen a school security officer told him to leave. Smalt said he complied, butthe security officer “ran out of the building and took the cameraaway.”

Smalt went back to the office during his next class and asked oneof the associate principals for his video back. She found the tape and asked himto erase it. Smalt said he was going to comply, but there was not enough timebefore his next class, so she sent him back to class.

Smalt said he hasasked numerous times for more details about the school’s reasons forconfiscating his tape, but has received no further explanation.

“I feltthey were overstepping their bounds as authority figures,” Smalt said. He saidhe was raised to obey authority figures, but he said the more people he hastalked to, the more he believes the school is wrong.

SPLC View: Schoolofficials appear to have crossed a line in this case. The student reporter wasnot in a prohibited space and his presence does not appear to have contributedin any way to the disturbance. Moreover, when asked to leave the area, thereporter complied. A campus fight, particularly one that involves local police,is a legitimate news story and school officials do not have the right tointerfere with lawful press coverage simply because they would rather the storynot be told.