CALIFORNIA — An 18-year-old college freshman was arrested inFebruary for taking photographs of an alleged car burglary in progress–anincident that stirred up questions nationwide about journalistic ethics andresponsibility.
According to San Francisco State’s student newspaper theGolden Gate Xpress, on the night of Oct. 24, 2004, Omar Vega followedfive students who found a set of lost car keys, located the car, and unlockedand entered it. The students allegedly took CDs and money from the vehicle. OmarVega told the Xpress he took several photographs of the students enteringthe car, but “was acting as a photojournalist and not directly involved in acrime.” His pictures were published on a Web site for photojournalists,www.sportsshooter.com.
Vega’s photographs of the crime stem from a photostory of freshman life he was working on for the Xpress. He spent aboutthree months taking pictures in and around campus, but the university’s officeof housing and residential services took issue with some of his pictures. Theschool issued him a “conduct advisory letter” on Dec. 2 which said there hadbeen three incidents in which Vega’s photography was “deemed disruptful” byuniversity housing staff, according to the letter. These incidents included hisphotographing a former student’s memorial service, an instance in which astudent was trapped in an elevator and the inside of a dining facility oncampus.
Director of Residential Life D.J. Morales met with Vega on Dec. 10alleging that he had violated unwritten policies and regulations of studenthousing by photographing the alleged car burglary, and told him he had untilJan. 31 to vacate his dorm room. The school turned over the car theftinvestigation to the San Francisco District Attorney’s office on Jan. 12.
OnFeb. 9 Vega was arrested upon leaving a class and taken to jail, but wasreleased about four hours later and arraigned in San Francisco Superior Courtthe next morning. Vega is scheduled to appear in front of a jury on June 24,Assistant District Attorney Sharon Bacon said.
University spokeswoman DeniseSpringer said Vega’s eviction is punishment for his involvement in an allegedcrime, not because he published pictures of it.
“The university doesn’tcondone the actions of students who break the law,” Springer said. “He wasinvolved in a crime–breaking into another student’s car, and we deal withthis in a very strong and effective process.”
But at a Feb. 11 newsconference Vega said he was only trying to chronicle freshman antics at hiscollege dorm and did not aid in the commission of a crime. “I did not break intothe vehicle or enter the vehicle,” he said.
Ken Kobre, a photojournalismprofessor at San Francisco State, said he does not believe Vega’s photographywas criminal.
“I think [the administration] wanted to get him out of thatdorm,” Kobre said. “They did not like the fact that he was recording what wasgoing on there. And [the car burglary] is the issue they’ve chosen to come downon because this is the one they decided they might be able to do somethingabout.”
Dennis Dunleavy, the photojournalism program coordinator at San JoseState University, wrote in his Web log, “The Big Picture?,” that he thinkscollege administrators were trying to hide the reality of dorm life. He wrotethat sanctions against Vega were the school’s attempt to “distract the publicfrom what some see as a dereliction of duty in maintaining control over studentsliving in the dorms, and to put a publicly embarrassing situation behind them.”
Vega’s lawyer, Emilia Mayorga, said the college administration did not bringup Vega’s alleged involvement in a car burglary until after controversialpictures were published.
“They’re making allegations of theft, and of aidingand abetting a crime. Why was that issue not addressed immediately?” she said.In light of this issue, Mayorga said, people at San Francisco State now have torequest permission from the school in order to take photographs in the dormsintended for publication.
“That’s a classic case of a prior restraint onFirst Amendment speech,” she said.
Kobre said this case raises a lot ofissues, including questions of the difference in medium.
“What is thedifference between photographing and speaking? What is the difference betweenspeaking and writing?” he asked. “If I told you the dorm told him he couldn’twrite or he couldn’t talk, I think you would be very shocked,” he said.
“Whyis it that when he’s taking photographs they can stop that activity?”
Kobreadded that Vega’s case raises the issue of who can and who cannot take picturesin a public university’s dormitories, and what right the school has to determinethis.
“What right does the dorm, which is owned by the public, have to closedown, censor and inhibit anyone from coming in to see what’s going on?”
Dunleavy wrote that ultimately, Vega’s First Amendment rights as ajournalist should take precedence over the school’s interest in punishingstudents for illegal activity.
“Any attempt to prohibit or restrict therights of the press to accurately and fairly report news relevant to societyundermines the values set forth in the U.S. Constitution. Omar’s statuswith the university–as a minor, freshman college student, dormitoryresident and as a classmate of the accused–may obfuscate his rights andreputation as a journalist,” he wrote.
“It is my hope that the chargesagainst Omar will be dropped unless indisputable evidence is found to prove thathis involvement in the incident went beyond journalism,” Dunleavy wrote.