SFSU Journalism Department Says Student Photojournalist Omar Vega's Case "Mishandled"

By Lemery Reyes & Richard McKeethen
Golden Gate [X]press, Special to News Photographer magazine

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - The chair of San Francisco State University's journalism department held a press conference on campus today 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.”

Omar Vega At Press ConferenceOn Wednesday, police arrested 18-year-old photojournalism student 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 2004 when Vega photographed a group of five people who police claim broke into a car parked on Lake Merced Blvd. and then stole CDs and cash. Vega was arraigned on misdemeanor charges of second-degree burglary and tampering with a vehicle for his alleged role in the break-in. Police also issued arrest warrants for the four other students involved in the October 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 Vega with burglary and tampering with a vehicle, both misdemeanors.

According to Vega, he was working on a photographic essay assignment for SFSU'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 incident and that he was not a participant in the alleged burglary.

The Editorial Board of [X]press initially declined to publish Vega's pictures in the student-run newspaper when they failed to get a unanimous board vote in favor of publishing. The images of the car incident were then published on a Web site. A discussion thread on the Web site www.sportsshooter.com titled "Beheading The Messenger..." details Vega's account of what happened next. But some of the images from the car incident are now online on the [X]press Web site.

Vega also contends that Mary Park Hall staff members have consistently harassed him over his work as photojournalist, violating his First Amendment rights until they evicted him in January 2005. “They’re making an example out of me,” said Vega at the press conference as his attorney, Emilia Mayorga, sat beside him. Mayorga is an associate at the San Francisco firm of Kerr & Wagstaffe, who say on their Web site that they are intervening in Vega's case "on behalf of a college student in a First Amendment controversy involving freedom of the press." James M. Wagstaffe, a partner and co-founder of Kerr & Wagstaffe, is an adjunct professor in constitutional law and civil procedure at Hastings College of the Law and in media law at SFSU.

“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.”

SFSU journalism department chair Burks said he supports Vega’s right to photograph events as they occur, including the 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 sees as 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 is a native of Stockton, CA, and is studying photojournalism on a scholarship he received to attend SFSU. His arrest Wednesday arose from the alleged auto burglary he photographed. University police reports indicate a group of four SFSU 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 SFSU student. Documents from the district attorney’s office indicate that one SFSU 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. “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 incident still remains unidentified.

Phone calls to the San Francisco district attorney’s office were not returned by press time.

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