Seizure of Student Newspaper Tests 1st Amendment Rights

Jennifer Bernardo

School administrators confiscated copies of the Campus News, which had reported on a shooting death that occurred on March 5 at East Los Angeles College. On March 8, the administrators released the nearly 4,000 copies of the paper after weighing First Amendment rights against safety concerns of a pictured student witness.

The weekly student publication was confiscated, administrators said, because a female student feared for her life when she saw herself pictured on the front-page story about an on-campus murder that occurred March 5.

The March 7 front-page coverage of the shooting in the Campus News included three photos.

The shooting led to the death of Joseph Robert Gallegos, 20, an Administration of Justice major. Campus News staff writer Diana Casillas interviewed witnesses at the scene while student photographer Kim Matthews took pictures. The pictures that ran showed paramedics aiding Gallegos, while Gallego’s fiancÇe, Mitzi Ozo, and her two children were led away by sheriff’s deputies. Behind Ozo and the sheriffs is the partially concealed face of the female student.

Casillas said that she had spoken to several witnesses at the scene and attempted to speak to the unidentified female. However, she refused to speak to Casillas, and it was not known at the time if she witnessed the shooting.

The confiscation placed ELAC administration under fire with the paper’s student editors and reporters, the paper’s advisers, and representatives of several media organizations for violating the First Amendment.

The female student allegedly saw her picture in the paper after it was distributed Wednesday and feared for her life because the shooting suspect is still on the loose, Casillas said. The student and her family then contacted the administrators to voice their fears that she would have to drop out of school.

Sylvia Rico-Sanchez, a substitute journalism instructor and adviser for the newspaper, said that she was walking towards the newsroom when she saw Daniel Ornelas, dean of students, along with two other faculty members, R.C. Williams and Frank Gutierrez, collecting the campus papers. She was told that they were confiscating the papers to protect a witness who was pictured on the front page. However, no one in the Campus News was notified of the arbitrary decision.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Ornelas said that he was prompted by legal advice and by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to seize the papers. However, the sheriff’s department denies any involvement in the decision to seize the papers.

College President Ernest Moreno was at a community college trustees’ meeting in downtown Los Angeles on the day of the seizure. According to the Times, Moreno ordered the release of the papers the following day after weighing First Amendment rights against student security.

Journalism adviser Jean Stapleton was recuperating from surgery on the day of the seizure and she attributes it to inexperience on behalf of everyone involved. She said that the sheriff’s department had only recently taken over school security at the time of the shooting, Ornelas had recently been made dean, and Rico-Sanchez was not aware of the newspaper’s rights.

Stapleton also adds that she is confident that Ornelas was advised by a local deputy to seize the paper but is not sure whose legal advice Ornelas sought that day.

Wayne Overbeck of Cal State Fullerton, a professor of journalism law, said that the seizure was a clear violation of the First Amendment. But Stapleton said that Campus News is not following suit in the incident.

Though the papers were re-released, an unidentified man stole them off racks later that same afternoon, according to Casillas.

Because the paper was again taken off the racks, Stapleton said the remaining copies would be kept in the newsroom where students could pick them up.