A UC Berkeley disciplinary panel concluded that student journalist Josh Wolf’s presence in the November 2009 11-hour occupation of Wheeler Hall was a punishable offense. Wolf, whose footage of the occupation was used in a “Democracy Now!” broadcast, recently graduated from the two-year journalism graduate program at UC Berkeley and must now write an essay addressing university policy toward student journalists before he can pick up his diploma.
This “punishment” is blatantly patronizing. This disciplinary action makes clear the administration’s insulting standpoint that student status supersedes journalistic status, sending the message, “You are merely a student — now go write an essay.” As if that was not enough, the subject of the essay is administrative action regarding student journalists. It is a twofold slap in the face.
Per recent action taken by UC Berkeley, only one thing can be derived — in the eyes of the UC system, student journalists are not journalists at all. The administration condescendingly declares that student status takes precedent over journalistic status, and imparts judicial processes on people who are operating as journalists while being enrolled as students.
The idea that student status negates journalistic status is absurd. Student journalists are journalists. And further, if any status should supersede another, U.S. citizenship and the national adherence to the First Amendment should trump student status and the student code of conduct.
As Nanette Asimov of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Guilty verdicts for practicing journalism are the stuff of authoritarian nations and now, apparently, UC Berkeley.” This is a poignant summation that typifies the systemic issues facing student journalists in the UC system, especially considering the current crisis hitting our universities and the numerous resistance efforts that have been, are currently and will continue to be taking place.
At the time that Wolf entered Wheeler Hall with his press pass displayed around his neck, 60 miles away, a reporter for a UC Santa Cruz publication called The Project was in Kerr Hall with his press pass displayed around his neck, filming the 66-hour occupation.
Kenji Tomari was issued a restitution fee by the university administration. The restitution was eventually dropped, but only after Tomari spent more than a quarter fighting the university with the $944 charge hanging over his head.
This is a systemic issue. As independently-funded publications that are entirely run by their membership, autonomous from the university, comprised of reporters wielding press passes, the question of which status supersedes the other is irrelevant – the two are autonomous spheres.
If journalists are afraid to report because they are not protected, we as a system are embarking on a path of self-censorship — an inherent contradiction to an intrinsic value of the free press.
UCSC Student Media has mobilized to alleviate this debilitating construct by working to establish a Universal Press Pass, which the administration would recognize, and grant journalists wielding these passes protection and officially recognize their function as journalists in that capacity. This is a step in the right direction, and would be in the university’s best interest. Both organizations have overlapping values — to educate and inform the public.
In President Obama’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, he addressed the value of journalists and reporting in these trying times. As the UC system — like America and the rest of the world — faces uncertain times ahead, his comments are especially applicable for journalists reporting on and in this dying system.
“In the last months we’ve seen journalists threatened, arrested, beaten, attacked and in some cases even killed simply for doing their best to bring us the story to give people a voice and to hold leaders accountable,” he said. “And through it all we have seen daring men and women risk their lives for the simple idea that no one should be silenced and everyone deserves to know the truth. That’s what you do. At your best that’s what journalism is — that’s the principle that you uphold. It is always important, but it’s especially important in times of challenge, like the moment that America and the world is facing now.”
The free press exists for a beautiful and paramountly important reason: “That no one should be silenced, and everyone deserves to know the truth.”
If Obama gets it, why doesn’t the UC?