Journalism Dept. Says Case "Mishandled"
 

The chair of SF State’s journalism department held a press conference on campus this afternoon defending the First Amendment rights of a photojournalism student arrested for photographing an alleged burglary.

“We believe that this case has been mishandled,” said department chairman John Burks. “We’re here today in support of photojournalism student Omar Vega.”

On Wednesday, police arrested 18-year-old Omar Vega just moments after he left a class in Burk Hall. The San Francisco Police Department issued an arrest warrant for Vega because of an incident that occurred in October when Vega photographed a group of five people police claim broke into a car parked on Lake Merced Blvd. and then stole CDs and cash. Police also issued arrest warrants for the four other students involved in the Oct. 24 incident. A fifth person seen in Vega's photographs has not been identified.

Burks said that Vega was acting as a journalist when he photographed Nicole Dion, John Macrery, Blake Street, Steven Stodola and one other unidentified male. But the San Francisco district attorney's office charged him with burglary and tampering with a vehicle, both misdemeanors.

According to Vega, he was working on a photo essay assignment for SF State’s campus newspaper, the Golden Gate [X]press, documenting freshman life in the dorms when the incident took place. During the Friday noontime press conference, Vega stated that he simply photographed the burglary and that he was not a participant in the alleged crime. Vega also contends that Mary Park Hall staff members have consistently harassed him over his work as photojournalist, violating his First Amendment rights until evicting him in January.

“They’re making an example out of me,” said Vega at the press conference with his attorney sitting beside him.

“It was so humiliating,” said Vega on Wednesday an hour after his release from jail. “It was right after class and my ex-roommate Michael and fellow classmates saw me get arrested and taken away in handcuffs.”

Journalism department chair Burks said he supports Vega’s right to photograph events as they occur, including the Oct. 24, 2004 incident that led to Vega’s arrest this week. Burks also questioned why the San Francisco district attorney’s office issued a warrant to arrest Vega over what Burks is nothing more than a student photographer reporting on life in the dorms.

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.”

Vega’s arrest on Wednesday arose from a reported auto burglary last Oct. 24. University police reports indicate a group of four SF State students and one unidentified male found a set of car keys on campus. The group searched and eventually located a 2002 Ford Mustang belonging to Karimah Arnold, another SF State student. Documents from the district attorney’s office indicate that one SF State student in the group, John Macrery, removed a CD from the vehicle.

As of Thursday afternoon, Vega and the other students had either been arrested or had turned themselves in to police. According to one of the students involved, Vega did not take anything from the vehicle.

“He (Vega) just took the pictures and posted them online,” said the student just after his release Thursday night at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco.

“He turned into a little bitch. We never stole anything. He made it all up. We all have to be in court on Monday,” the student added.

Students Dion and Stodola still live in the dorms. Dion has declined requests for comment and Stodoloa said Vega never entered the car. Macrery and Street no longer reside on campus and the sixth participant in the Oct. 24 incident still remains unidentified.

Phone calls to the San Francisco district attorney’s office have not been returned by posting time.

[X]press reporter Daniel Jimenez contributed to this story.

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