For California student videographer, a (non-)punishment that fits the (non-)crime

The second legal scrape of student videographer Josh Wolf’s young career will not sting nearly so hard as the first.

Wolf — who holds the unwanted distinction of being America’s longest-imprisoned journalist, for defying a federal grand jury subpoena to turn over videotapes shot at a protest rally — got back into hot water in November 2009 for getting a little too close to the action at a demonstration on the University of California-Berkeley campus.

Wolf was accused of three violations of UC-Berkeley’s student conduct code when he remained inside a campus building occupied by student protesters despite a police order to leave. Wolf never denied entering and remaining in the building, but argued that his activities should be excused because he was there to record the protests as a videographer, not as a participant.

In a creative job of “sentencing” that nicely reflects the harmlessness of Wolf’s offense and tries to make something positive out of it, the disciplinary board April 27 ordered him to compile a research paper on the state of journalists’ rights on campus. His findings may be used to upgrade the school’s conduct rules to better accommodate the unique free-press issues presented when schools attempt to punish newsgathering activity.

Wolf’s situation highlights the difficulty in holding students to a campus conduct code when they are acting in a professional rather than a student capacity. Had Wolf been a non-student videographer for Channel 7 news, it’s doubtful that he’d have suffered any consequences. In this magazine piece, SPLC’s Sommer Ingram describes the ill fit when a campus disciplinary process that was built to handle test-cheaters is instead applied to charges of overzealous journalism.