Dept. Chairman says Photojournalist's Arrest was "mishandled"
February 17, 2005 12:46 PM
Photojournalism major Omar Vega said last week he was exercising his First Amendment rights when he took photographs of an alleged burglary that has resulted in his arrest and eviction from the dorms and could get him expelled.
Vega, 18, photographed as four SF State students and an unidentified male allegedly entered SF State student Karimah Arnold’s Ford Mustang after finding a set of car keys. The group apparently stole CDs and cash on Oct. 24. Vega was arrested Feb. 9 on two counts of misdemeanor auto burglary.
“It was so humiliating,” said Vega, discussing his afternoon arrest by campus police and a San Francisco Sheriff’s deputy. “It was right after class and my ex-roommate Michael and fellow
After photographing the incident, Vega published the pictures on a popular photography Web site, www.sportsshooter.com. Debate raged on online discussion boards about Vega’s role as a photojournalist during the alleged burglary. According to a police report, an anonymous caller from South Korea then brought the photos to the attention of the university police department and the housing department.
Arnold filed a police report that her car had been burglarized after she discovered mud on the floor mats and burn marks on the car seats. Arnold, who later identified the car keys police had recovered from a nearby bush, has not returned calls for comment from [X]press.
Vega said the photographs were part of a semester-long freelance assignment for [X]press. The editors of the student-run newspaper assigned him to document life in the freshman dorms for a photo essay in the newspaper last semester.
“We believe that this case has been mishandled,” said journalism department chair John Burks during a press conference held on campus Feb. 11. “We’re here today in support of photojournalism student Omar Vega.”
During the press conference, Vega said staff members at Mary Park Hall have consistently harassed him because of his photography, hindering his work as a student journalist. Vega was evicted from the dorm on Dec. 20 and officials moved to expel him from the university at a hearing on Feb. 8.
The San Francisco District Attorney’s office issued arrest warrants for Steven Stodola and Nicole Dion, both 19, and Blake Street and John Macrery, both 18. All four were arrested or surrendered to police on Feb. 10 and were charged with second-degree misdemeanors in auto burglary and for tampering with a vehicle. The sixth, unnamed individual has not been charged or served with a warrant.
During the press conference, Vega presented a variety of photographs he had taken last semester for the photo essay assignment. One of the photos clearly shows Macrery inside the vehicle, alone, while the other individuals stood next to the car.
Two of the students remain in Mary Park Hall and Mary Ward Hall. Dion, of Pleasanton, and Stodola, of Concord, were suspended and served community service hours. According to Stodola, he and Dion were put on probation by the university for the alleged auto burglary and had to “volunteer” as a form of housing punishment. Stodola declined to explain what type of “volunteer” work they had to serve.
According to a report compiled by SF State Director of Residential Life DJ Morales and the housing department, some of the students claimed Vega was “just as excited and eager to find the car as they were.”
Macrery, of Garden Grove (Orange County) and Street, of Temecula (Riverside County) were evicted from the dorms for unknown infractions, according to Stodola. They continue to attend SF State, according to university spokeswoman Ellen Griffin.
According to one of the students involved, Vega did not take anything from the vehicle.
"Omar Vega has heavily understated hisinvolvement in the events that took place that night," Street remarked through an e-mailed statement to [X]press.
Vega pleaded innocent on Feb. 10 to his charges of burglary and tampering with a vehicle, both misdemeanors. Stodola, Dion, Macrery and Street were scheduled for arraignment on Monday.
David Rourke, associate director of residential life, called Vega “disruptful” in a Dec. 2 letter admonishing him for photographing the following events:
Aug. 31, 2004: Vega photographed a closed memorial service for Kevin Costello, an SF State Presidential Scholar that died during a field trip last year.
Oct. 13, 2004: Vega photographed an elevator emergency in the Science and Technology Theme Community, a special dorm for science and technology majors. Vega said that while he photographed the incident, a resident assistant attempted to knock his camera out of his hand, causing a minor eye injury. Vega subsequently filed a police report.
Dec. 1, 2004: Vega photographed the Christmas decorations and holiday setup inside the City Eats Residential Dining Facility.
The Oct. 24 alleged burglary was not mentioned in Rourke’s letter to Vega.
All of the incidents were part of his attempt to fulfill the assignment for a freshman life photo essay in [X]press, he said.
Vega said a new housing rule was designed for him after he began photographing freshman life inside the dorm areas. Before moving in as a freshman last year, Vega and his father co-signed the standard living agreement contract required of all students residing in the dorms, which includes a student code of conduct. The housing contract obtained by the [X]press did not include any specific rules on photography inside the dorms.
“They’re making an example out of me,” said Vega, who walks around campus with his nametag from jail still attached to his backpack.
Morales, in a Dec. 20 letter notifying Vega of the university’s intention to evict him, said Vega had violated and “disregard(ed)” the Student Housing License Agreement and Student Code of Conduct.
“As members of the student living community, Licensees are held responsible for their actions,” Morales wrote. “Nor was I able to find any exemptions for journalists who conspire, aid or abet (crimes) in the First Amendment Handbook, which is a common resource used by journalists,” added Morales.
According to Rourke’s Dec. 2 letter, Vega was required to follow a set of student conduct guidelines, including restrictions on photography that are not included in the housing contract provided to [X]press.
“Your taking pictures is permissible so long as those pictures are used and maintained in a private capacity,” wrote Rourke. “Pictures you take with a camera and provide to the school newspaper or other journalistic entity for public viewing is not acceptable.”
At the press conference, Burks said housing officials claimed he had signed a contract that waived the
“One dorm official said that I have signed a contract that limited access to photojournalism,” said Burks.
Burks has requested a copy of the contract, but has yet to receive one from housing officials.
Burks said he has no knowledge of such a contract and has not signed one.
Morales, director of residential life at SF State, said she is not aware that such a contract exists. “I do recall a meeting with (Burks) and some journalism students a couple of years ago,” said Morales in an e-mailed statement. “During this meeting, we came to agreements on who reporters could contact to get access and information regarding housing.”
The day before Vega’s arrest, he met with Judicial Affairs Officer Donna Cunningham to discuss the Oct. 24 incident.
“She was just interested in that day only,” said Vega. “She did not want to hear about a resident assistant hitting me or any other incident.”
E-mails and phone calls made to Cunningham’s office were not returned by press time.
Stodola said he had not met with either Cunningham or Volkert and had no knowledge if the other individuals involved had been called to similar meetings. According to SF State media law professor James Wagstaffe, whose law office is representing Vega, the arrest came as a shock.
"It's curious to us that the member of the press was brought in first," said Wagstaffe in a phone interview. "This criminal charge is a grave threat to the First Amendment. He (Vega) just happens to have a camera and be a member of the press. We're shocked.”
According to Christopher Waldrep, an SF State professor of American history who teaches classes in constitutional history, the general public has a misunderstanding of the First Amendment.
“A lot of people think that anything goes,” said Waldrep. “But if you think and reflect, you don’t want anything libelous said against you. I’m a big believer in the First Amendment. I’m all for free speech.”
Ken Kobre, photojournalism professor and faculty advisor to the student-run [X]press, also said that he believes that Vega was just doing his job.
“Omar Vega was doing exactly what a photojournalist should do,” said Kobre. “He was taking his camera and he was recording the world around him. The people that run the dorm have tried to block him from taking those pictures. They tried to do that almost from the time he arrived.”
Cal State Long Beach President Robert Maxon said the relationship between a student newspaper and the administration can be contentious, but he believes it is important to support journalists during their college years.
“If there is an incident in the dorms, it has to be reported,” said Maxon said in a telephone interview. “(Officials) can’t threaten or try to intimidate. It doesn’t set a right example for young journalists. A picture is as powerful as any story in a paper. The paper is not supposed to be a public relations piece.”
SF State President Robert Corrigan did not respond to requests for comment by press time. University spokeswoman Ellen Griffin declined to comment on the situation, citing student confidentiality.
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