Officials seize video of fight from student

NEW YORK When Ken Smalt decided to videotape the aftermath of a high school fight as part of a class project, he did not expect school administrators to confiscate the footage.

Not only did administrators do just that, they demanded he erase the footage — on the grounds that it infringed on the rights of the students Smalt captured on film.The incident began when Smalt, who was in a class that produced news and entertainment segments for Time Warner Cable's local public access channel, decided to report on a fight between two groups of students at Ithaca High School.

Though technical difficulties did not allow Smalt to capture footage of the actual fight, he was able to capture the fight's aftermath, which included images of students being taken to the principal's office and the arrival of the local police.Smalt was asked by a school security officer to stop interviewing students through an office window and to leave. After exiting the building, Smalt was followed by the officer, who then confiscated his camera, Smalt said.

"I felt they were overstepping their bounds as authority figures," Smalt said.

The school handbook states that students have the right to take pictures for news purposes as long as it does not impede on the students' rights or affect the learning environment.Smalt said that after repeated inquisitions, the school never told him what rights he was violating. He also said that no where did the school handbook state that videotaping on the school campus was not allowed.

Penelope Deakin, founder of the Western New York School Press Association and a retired high school and college adviser, said schools do not give many rights to students."It's news, certainly," Deakin said "Would the principal have asked a professional to erase the tape? That is the argument I would make."

Deakin said student journalists encounter ignorance toward their First Amendment rights from people in power. She suggests student journalists work out an agreement with administrators beforehand so when an issue arises, the rules will be laid out.

"[That way] nobody gets backed into that defensive corner and they won't have to yield," Deakin said. 

Dadie Sedota, adviser of the Brocton Review at Brocton High School, said establishing a policy is a must to avoid this type of problem.

"If you dont' have a policy, then you can end up with question marks and conflicts because people do not know the guidelines," Sedota said. "It's understandable that a school doesn't want to have bad publicity, but at the same time it's good to know what is going on."

School administrators did not respond to requests for comment.

Fall 2004, Ithaca High School, New York, reports