In 2007, the young video blogger Josh Wolf earned the unfortunate distinction of being incarcerated longer than any journalist in modern times for refusing to release his sources. His 226-day stint in prison ignited questions about whether all bloggers deserve to be treated as journalists and who has the authority to draw the line. Wolf’s refusal to give federal authorities a video of an anarchist street protest earned him the respect of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which in 2007 named him Journalist of the Year. He’s currently a first-year student at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, where, true to form, he was recently arrested in an incident that raises similarly prickly questions about press freedoms.
The New York Times‘ Bay Area blog reports that Wolf was arrested late last year inside Wheeler Hall, which had been occupied and barricaded by students protesting tuition hikes. The university plans to give him much more than a slap on the wrist:
Mr. Wolf now faces a seven-month academic suspension (and a 10-page essay assignment), a punishment similar to that of many other students arrested inside Wheeler. He argues that he was in the building as a member of the press. His footage, indeed, was later used in a report by Democracy Now!, for whom he had contributed previously.
Wolf, who might as well declare himself a press freedom superhero at this point, says that he was simply putting his duty as a journalist ahead of his student’s duty to obey administrators. He claims to have the support of Berkeley’s journalism faculty. But Robert Gunnison, the director of school affairs for the journalism school, told the Times that a journalist’s status may be irrelevant in this instance:
Shield laws do not protect reporters when police issue dispersal orders, which is effectively the threat of a trespassing charge. “We don’t have special access to property; none of us do,” Mr. Gunnison said. “In general, it’s what we teach. If someone says you’re trespassing, there’s nothing you can do.”
Wolf has certainly happened upon another interesting grey area of press freedom, and I think there are compelling arguments on both sides. While the university probably has the legal right to suspend and punish Wolf, I’m personally inclined to side with his claim that Berkeley is being unduly punitive. Wolf was inside the building to document what was happening, not to participate in the student takeover. I’d draw the analogy with reporters covering illegal street protests or trying to document a battle between opposing armies. There comes a point when the university would be justified in punishing him for being there, and that point would probably be when cops barge inside and start handcuffing people. But by then there’s nothing left to see, and he’s presumably going leave on his own accord.
Perhaps I’m being too idealistic, but can’t idealism catch a break at UC Berkeley?