“Sentenced” to write essay, videographer challenges fairness of UC-Berkeley disciplinary board

Considering that Josh Wolf had already spent seven months of his young journalistic career in jail, the “sentence” he received for his latest clash with the law might have seemed about as harsh as a Bart Simpson chalkboard apology.

Still, Wolf continues contesting the penalty imposed by the University of California-Berkeley for his failure to leave a campus building while videotaping an anti-tuition-hike demonstration in November 2009: A five-page paper analyzing the rights of student journalists on campus and recommending disciplinary policies to avoid First Amendment clashes like the one that landed him in hot water.

“It was never about my punishment or my case at all,” Wolf said Tuesday, discussing his decision to appeal. “It was always about the larger issue around the rights of student journalists on campus.”

The appeal, filed June 1 with Berkeley’s vice chancellor for student affairs, raises several contentions about the fairness of the April 2011 hearing before a campus disciplinary board. Among them:

(1) Whether the panel improperly afforded a “presumption of truth” to testimony by student conduct officers,

(2) Whether the panel’s chairman improperly refused Wolf’s requests to open the hearing to the public and to make an audio recording of the proceedings, and

(3) Whether the chairman should have disqualified himself because he and Wolf were embroiled in a legal dispute that arose when Wolf sued him alleging that a preliminary hearing in October 2010 was conducted unfairly.

In the appeal, Wolf states that his punishment, mild as it may seem, has already chilled newsgathering at Berkeley: “Several student journalists have already spoken to Wolf about their new fears in reporting on campus following the outcome of his hearing.”

Wolf completed the coursework for his masters degree from UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism this spring, but issuance of his degree is conditioned upon successfully completing the disciplinary assignment, which — unless successfully appealed — is due at the end of June. The university has 15 days from filing to act on the appeal.