Student Journalist at American University Punished for Videotaping Public Speech by Tipper Gore

August 12, 2002

WASHINGTON, DC—American University (AU) has punished an undergraduate student journalist for videotaping a public speech by Tipper Gore. A kangaroo court at AU found the student guilty of "possession of stolen property." "American University jumped at the chance to silence a critic, without a care for free speech, journalistic freedom, and fundamental fairness," said Alan Charles Kors, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Ben Wetmore, a senior from Denton, Texas, is well known to administrators at AU for his opposition to University policies and expenditures. He maintains a website where he criticizes and parodies AU President Benjamin Ladner and other AU officials. On April 8, 2002, Wetmore attended a public speech by Tipper Gore. AU gave no indication that videotaping at the event was banned. Wetmore brought his camcorder with him to tape the public speech. More than half an hour into the event, plainclothes campus security officers told Wetmore to stop taping. Wetmore claims that they refused to identify themselves. The Office of Public Safety testified, in response, that one officer "adjusted his suit jacket so that Mr. Wetmore could see his badge on his left hip." According to the testimony of Karen Gerlach, then assistant director of student activities at AU (and now the director), as soon as she arrived and stated that she "did not want this incident to cause a disruption," Wetmore cooperated: "[He] then got up and came outside."

Outside, the officers demanded that Wetmore turn over the tape. According to the Office of Public Safety’s official judicial complaint, when Wetmore refused, the officers "pried the camcorder from Mr. Wetmore’s hands, put him on the floor and placed him in handcuffs. The videotape was confiscated." Karen Gerlach testified: "Mr. Wetmore indicated that he wanted to file assault charges against the officers." She also noted that "the red light of the camera was still on," and that it "might be recording." An officer "then removed the tape from the camera and put it in his pocket." AU now refuses to return the student’s tape of what occurred.

Ben Wetmore was charged with seven violations of campus policy, including "theft" of Tipper Gore’s "intellectual property." As Gerlach testified, Ben Wetmore told the officers that the announced ban concerned flash photography only. She added that the staff "did not have signs posted at the event stipulating this condition nor was a clear announcement made at the beginning of the event."

FIRE’s Legal Network secured the services of Jonathan Katz, a partner with the Maryland firm of Marks & Katz, to fight for Wetmore’s rights through his administrative trial. At the trial, Director of Judicial Affairs and Mediation Services Katsura Kurita, who has a law degree, assumed the roles of grand jury, judge, and juror. AU prevented attorney Jon Katz from representing Wetmore at the hearing. Of the two other jurors, one was Kurita’s own clerk and the other was a student who had submitted charges of impeachment against Wetmore in the student government in 2000. Wetmore was found guilty of five charges (including possession of stolen property, trespass, and failing to comply with the directions of university officials). AU Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Faith C. Leonard notified FIRE that "there is no right of appeal in cases heard by a disciplinary conference board."

When Wetmore contacted FIRE, Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy, first attempted to resolve the case informally. He then wrote to President Ladner on June 11, 2002: "No university that cares about student rights would allow a student who wished simply to videotape a public figure at a public event on its campus to be manhandled by authorities, to be found guilty of theft of images and sounds…to be denied an impartial panel, and to be placed on probation without any chance of appeal." AU dismissed these concerns.

In a revealing response to a letter about the case, AU Vice President and University Counsel Mary E. Kennard criticized Wetmore for ignoring the University’s "admonitions" not "to post derogatory materials about staff on his website"—as if it were a crime to be publicly critical of the University. Kennard’s letter confirms what AU’s behavior already revealed: the appalling treatment of Ben Wetmore was due to his political speech and journalistic activities.

Wetmore was placed on disciplinary probation for one year, ordered to attend a conflict resolution workshop, assigned forty hours of community service (cleaning the auditorium), told to write several papers on "the topic of ‘Conflict Resolution,’" stripped of an elected student position, and warned that another such incident may well result in his expulsion. The judgment, written by Kurita, added, "The board is concerned that you are choosing to utilize confrontational tactics to address your personal agendas"—making Wetmore’s website criticism of AU part of the proceedings against him.

Through its Legal Network, FIRE has now secured the assistance of Solomon Wisenberg, a partner with the Washington firm of Ross, Dixon & Bell, who is coordinating pro bono litigation against AU. Wisenberg said, "We are determined to pursue all available legal avenues and to use all means at our disposal to restore to Ben his rights as a journalist and as a student."

"It is shameful that American University has treated a student journalist in this appalling manner," said Kors. "FIRE and its Legal Network will pursue its claims against AU until justice is done."

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at American University and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.

Contact:
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; fire@thefire.org
Benjamin Ladner, President: 202-885-2121; president@american.edu
Faith C. Leonard, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students: 202-885-3300; fleonar@american.edu
Katsura Kurita, Director of Judicial Affairs and Mediation Services: 202-885-3368; kurita@american.edu
Mary E. Kennard, Vice President and University Counsel: (202) 885-3285; mekesq@american.edu