Josh Wolf, the citizen-journalist who served 226 days in federal prison in 2006 for refusing to turn over videotapes he took at a protest in San Francisco, is facing a seven-month suspension from UC Berkeley for being in Wheeler Hall when it was occupied by students on Nov. 20, 2009.
Wolf, a first-year student at the Graduate School of Journalism, has told UC officials that he was in Wheeler Hall in a journalistic capacity, but officials have refused to treat him like a reporter. Instead, UC officials say his student status is paramount, and that his journalistic mission does not prevent him from being suspended.
“You participated in a disturbance of the peace in which a campus building was locked preventing access and egress,” Laura A.E. Bennett, the Assistant Director of the Center for Student Conduct and Community Standards wrote Wolf on April 9. “Through the course of this incident you failed to comply with the directions of University Officials. This incident created a significant disruption to and obstruction of the academic environment, including but not limited to preventing students from attending class.”
In addition to a seven-month suspension, Bennett has asked Wolf to write a 10-page paper examining the codes of conduct of various public universities. Wolf must also address how to reconcile the roles of being a student and a journalist, as well as whether Wolf has any limits as a journalist. The paper is due June 30, 2010. If Wolf complies with these terms he can return to the journalism school in December, wrote Bennett. If he does not, his registration will be blocked.
Wolf was supposed to agree or disagree with the terms of his punishment by Wednesday April 14, but he has asked for a week’s extension.
Wolf, 27, is just one of dozens of UC Berkeley students who are facing suspension for occupying Wheeler Hall. The university has taken a hard stance against the protestors, stating that occupying the hall disrupted the campus and violated its Codes of Conduct.
At least one other journalism student was inside Wheeler Hall at the time of the occupation. Neil Henry, the dean of the journalism school, did not return calls for comment by the time this article was published. Wolf said that he’s had “indications from students, staff, and faculty that they support me in this matter.”
UC Berkeley officials had not responded to calls for comment at the time of publication.
Wolf, who specializes in filming acts of “civil dissent,” was sent to the Federal Correction Institution in Dublin, CA in 2006 after he refused to turn over tapes of a July 8, 2005 demonstration against the World Trade Organization in San Francisco. A grand jury investigating the people responsible for the burning of a police car during that demonstration subpoenaed Wolf and his tapes, but Wolf refused to turn them over.
Wolf was imprisoned for 226 days for his defiance, making his sentence the longest ever served by an American journalist. Wolf was released after he posted the video on-line.
Wolf’s case came at a time of transformation in American journalism and many people questioned whether or not he truly was a journalist since he was writing for websites and other outlets rather than newspapers or television or radio stations. Some called him an “activist with a camera,” rather than a journalist.
Since then, much of journalism has transferred to the web. On Monday, an online news organization, ProPublica, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a story it did on hospitals in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, marking a huge shift in what is considered news. The piece was published in the New York Times magazine.
After his release from prison, Wolf went on to work for the Daily Post in Palo Alto. He started at the journalism school in the fall of 2009.
On Nov. 20, about 40 UC students broke into Wheeler Hall on the UC campus in the early morning and occupied the building for about 11 hours.. They were protesting the 32 percent fee hike approved the previous day by the UC Board of Regents. They were cited by police and released.
Wolf declined on Wednesday to talk specifically about the time he spent in Wheeler Hall. He said he was carrying a small Canon video camera but most of the footage he shot was corrupted. He said he did contribute a small amount of footage to a report on the protests prepared by Democracy Now.
Wolf said he is optimistic that UC officials will eventually recognize he was there as a journalist and will drop their attempts to suspend him.