Civil Rights

Tipper Tape

Swatting a student gadfly

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In April plain-clothes police on the campus of American University (A.U.) in Washington, D.C., confronted a student as he was videotaping a public speech by Tipper Gore and demanded that he stop. The student, Ben Wetmore, says the police refused to show any ID, a story confirmed by another student. Still, he agreed to leave the building with the cops and an A.U. official to resolve the matter.

When Wetmore refused to surrender his tape, the cops grabbed his camcorder, wrestled him to the ground, and handcuffed him. The university later charged the senior with a series of campus violations, including the "theft" of Tipper Gore's intellectual property. Wetmore has since been found guilty; his punishment included performing janitorial services.

The school's actions are extraordinary for a number of reasons. The university never informed the public that videotaping was prohibited at the Tipper Gore event, although the audience was warned not to take flash photographs. Furthermore, taping a public event is not an infringement of copyright. Even if Wetmore had infringed any copyright in a later use of the tape, A.U. would have no standing in any case that resulted.

Civil libertarians believe Wetmore was punished for entirely different reasons. The Texas native maintains a Web site (www.benladner.com) that questions the school's expenditures and is highly critical of A.U. President Benjamin Ladner. When the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) attempted to intervene in the case on Wetmore's behalf, an A.U. official responded by letter, criticizing Wetmore for having ignored the school's "admonitions" not "to post derogatory materials about staff on his website." FIRE's president, Alan Charles Kors (a Reason contributing editor), criticizes A.U. for having "jumped at the chance to silence a critic, without a care for free speech, journalistic freedom, and fundamental fairness."

A.U.'s position is that it cannot publicly discuss the case's details out of regard for Wetmore's privacy. But it released a statement defending its actions as fair and noting that "American University is a private school [and] does not regard this matter as a First Amendment issue."

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