NEW YORK — When Ken Smalt decided to videotape theaftermath of a high school fight as part of a class project, he did not expectschool administrators to confiscate the footage.
Not only didadministrators do just that, they demanded he erase the footage — on thegrounds that it infringed on the rights of the students Smalt captured onfilm.The incident began when Smalt, who was in a class that producednews and entertainment segments for Time Warner Cable’s local public accesschannel, decided to report on a fight between two groups of students at IthacaHigh School.
Though technical difficulties did not allow Smalt to capturefootage of the actual fight, he was able to capture the fight’s aftermath, whichincluded images of students being taken to the principal’s office and thearrival of the local police.Smalt was asked by a school security officerto stop interviewing students through an office window and to leave. Afterexiting the building, Smalt was followed by the officer, who then confiscatedhis camera, Smalt said.
“I felt they were overstepping their bounds asauthority figures,” Smalt said.
The school handbook states that studentshave the right to take pictures for news purposes as long as it does not impedeon the students’ rights or affect the learning environment.Smalt saidthat after repeated inquisitions, the school never told him what rights he wasviolating. He also said that no where did the school handbook state thatvideotaping on the school campus was not allowed.
Penelope Deakin,founder of the Western New York School Press Association and a retired highschool and college adviser, said schools do not give many rights tostudents.”It’s news, certainly,” Deakin said “Would the principal haveasked a professional to erase the tape? That is the argument I wouldmake.”
Deakin said student journalists encounter ignorance toward theirFirst Amendment rights from people in power. She suggests studentjournalists work out an agreement with administrators beforehand so when anissue arises, the rules will be laid out.
“[That way] nobody gets backedinto that defensive corner and they won’t have to yield,” Deakin said.
Dadie Sedota, adviser of the Brocton Review at Brocton HighSchool, said establishing a policy is a must to avoid this type ofproblem.
“If you dont’ have a policy, then you can end up with questionmarks and conflicts because people do not know the guidelines,” Sedota said.”It’s understandable that a school doesn’t want to have bad publicity, but atthe same time it’s good to know what is going on.”
Schooladministrators did not respond to requests for comment.