Student arrested, evicted for photos

Freshman Omar Vega photographed students allegedly burglarizing a car on campus

CALIFORNIA -- An 18-year-old college freshman was arrested in February for taking photographs of an alleged car burglary in progress--an incident that stirred up questions nationwide about journalistic ethics and responsibility.

According to San Francisco State's student newspaper the Golden Gate Xpress, on the night of Oct. 24, 2004, Omar Vega followed five students who found a set of lost car keys, located the car, and unlocked and entered it. The students allegedly took CDs and money from the vehicle. Omar Vega told the Xpress he took several photographs of the students entering the car, but "was acting as a photojournalist and not directly involved in a crime." His pictures were published on a Web site for photojournalists,

Vega's photographs of the crime stem from a photo story of freshman life he was working on for the Xpress. He spent about three months taking pictures in and around campus, but the university's office of housing and residential services took issue with some of his pictures. The school issued him a "conduct advisory letter" on Dec. 2 which said there had been three incidents in which Vega's photography was "deemed disruptful" by university housing staff, according to the letter. These incidents included his photographing a former student's memorial service, an instance in which a student was trapped in an elevator and the inside of a dining facility on campus.

Director of Residential Life D.J. Morales met with Vega on Dec. 10 alleging that he had violated unwritten policies and regulations of student housing by photographing the alleged car burglary, and told him he had until Jan. 31 to vacate his dorm room. The school turned over the car theft investigation to the San Francisco District Attorney's office on Jan. 12.

On Feb. 9 Vega was arrested upon leaving a class and taken to jail, but was released about four hours later and arraigned in San Francisco Superior Court the next morning. Vega is scheduled to appear in front of a jury on June 24, Assistant District Attorney Sharon Bacon said.

University spokeswoman Denise Springer said Vega's eviction is punishment for his involvement in an alleged crime, not because he published pictures of it.

"The university doesn't condone the actions of students who break the law," Springer said. "He was involved in a crime--breaking into another student's car, and we deal with this in a very strong and effective process."

But at a Feb. 11 news conference Vega said he was only trying to chronicle freshman antics at his college dorm and did not aid in the commission of a crime. "I did not break into the vehicle or enter the vehicle," he said.

Ken Kobre, a photojournalism professor at San Francisco State, said he does not believe Vega's photography was criminal.

"I think [the administration] wanted to get him out of that dorm," Kobre said. "They did not like the fact that he was recording what was going on there. And [the car burglary] is the issue they've chosen to come down on because this is the one they decided they might be able to do something about."

Dennis Dunleavy, the photojournalism program coordinator at San Jose State University, wrote in his Web log, "The Big Picture?," that he thinks college administrators were trying to hide the reality of dorm life. He wrote that sanctions against Vega were the school's attempt to "distract the public from what some see as a dereliction of duty in maintaining control over students living in the dorms, and to put a publicly embarrassing situation behind them."

Vega's lawyer, Emilia Mayorga, said the college administration did not bring up Vega's alleged involvement in a car burglary until after controversial pictures were published.

"They're making allegations of theft, and of aiding and abetting a crime. Why was that issue not addressed immediately?" she said. In light of this issue, Mayorga said, people at San Francisco State now have to request permission from the school in order to take photographs in the dorms intended for publication.

"That's a classic case of a prior restraint on First Amendment speech," she said.

Kobre said this case raises a lot of issues, including questions of the difference in medium.

"What is the difference between photographing and speaking? What is the difference between speaking and writing?" he asked. "If I told you the dorm told him he couldn't write or he couldn't talk, I think you would be very shocked," he said.

"Why is it that when he's taking photographs they can stop that activity?"

Kobre added that Vega's case raises the issue of who can and who cannot take pictures in a public university's dormitories, and what right the school has to determine this.

"What right does the dorm, which is owned by the public, have to close down, censor and inhibit anyone from coming in to see what's going on?"

Dunleavy wrote that ultimately, Vega's First Amendment rights as a journalist should take precedence over the school's interest in punishing students for illegal activity.

"Any attempt to prohibit or restrict the rights of the press to accurately and fairly report news relevant to society undermines the values set forth in the U.S. Constitution. Omar’s status with the university--as a minor, freshman college student, dormitory resident and as a classmate of the accused--may obfuscate his rights and reputation as a journalist," he wrote.

"It is my hope that the charges against Omar will be dropped unless indisputable evidence is found to prove that his involvement in the incident went beyond journalism," Dunleavy wrote.

reports, Spring 2005