Calif. photojournalist might face sanctions for taking photos inside classroom

CALIFORNIA — A student journalist at San Francisco State University is awaiting the results of a university investigation prompted by a professor who filed a complaint against the student because he took pictures of an activist posting signs in the professor’s classroom.

Jason Steinberg, a photographer for The Golden Gate Express, a student newspaper, followed an unidentified student activist around campus on May 11 as she organized a walkout protesting university budget cuts.

“This activist just kind of walked into my lap, and the next thing you know it, I’m documenting what she’s doing,” Steinberg said.

When the two students entered the female professor’s classroom after her class was dismissed, Steinberg took several photos of the activist talking with students who had remained in the classroom. The professor asked Steinberg not to photograph her — a request he honored, Steinberg said.

As Steinberg and the activist exited the classroom they were followed by the professor, who demanded that Steinberg erase the pictures he had just taken with his digital camera.

After he refused, the professor told Steinberg she was going to call the police because she felt he invaded her privacy. When he told the professor he did not have time to wait for the police, he gave her his contact information and left.

“I don’t think anything was done wrong here,” he said. “I’m a student, and I wasn’t running away from this.”

Several days later, he was questioned by university police. Steinberg said the professor also filed a complaint to the university’s student disciplinary office claiming he conspired with the activist and trespassed in her classroom.

Steinberg said he does not know the name of the professor who filed the complaint.

Steinberg said he also was pressured by university police to reveal the name of the activist — a name he could not recall during questioning.

Officials from the university’s police department refused requests for comment on the case.

Erna Smith, adviser of the newspaper, was informed on July 2 that the university police had dropped its investigation and no criminal charges will be filed. A student disciplinary officer still is reviewing the case, and it is unclear whether Steinberg could face punishment from the university, Smith said.

“This is state property, and it’s like someone saying you can’t come into city hall because we don’t think you have any business in here,” Smith said. “There are teachers that have this notion that their classrooms are their sovereign country in which they rule. They don’t have any respect for student journalists and think they can treat them anyway they want.”

Smith said she was appalled that police had investigated the incident to this extent, and believes the actions of the professor are a lesson in abuse of power that occurs too often on college campuses.

“In the 15 years I have been advising, there is more and more of this sort of militant anti-First Amendment mentality,” she said. “This is public space and anyone who is enrolled at this university … [has] a right to come into any classroom they want.”

Smith said the only reason the case appears to be moving forward is because the professor is insisting her rights were abridged.

“It’s not even clear if the university agrees with that or not,” she said.