Group Fights for Student Caught Taping Tipper Gore Speech

An organization that defends individual rights of students on college campuses across the country is waiting to hear from American University about rescinding penalties it imposed on student Ben Wetmore, who was arrested in April for taping a speech given by Tipper Gore.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said the action taken against Wetmore, who was arrested on April 8, 2002, and charged with possession of stolen property, was overly harsh.

Wetmore was grabbed by police during the arrest, convicted in a trial by the university's Office of Judicial Affairs, and removed from his position as president of his residence hall.

University officials placed Wetmore on disciplinary probation for a year and warned that another offense could lead to his expulsion.

FIRE said that the university has violated journalistic freedom, fairness, and due process. It said Wetmore was denied an impartial hearing and an appeal, and it wants the school to overturn Wetmore's conviction on the grounds the ruling violates his free speech rights.

"No university that cares about student rights would allow a student who wished simply to videotape a public figure at a public event on its campus to be manhandled by authorities, to be found guilty of theft of images and sounds (among other charges), to be denied an impartial panel, and to be placed on probation without any chance to appeal," Greg C. Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, wrote in a letter to American University President Ben Ladner last month.

According to Gore's contract, the speech, which was paid for by the university and open to the public, was not to be taped because the wife of former Vice President Al Gore was showing copyrighted photos.

However, students were only given notice that no flash photography was allowed, FIRE argued. Students were not told they could not videotape.

Wetmore has been known on the American University campus for his Web site, which criticizes the university for some of its actions and the way money is spent.

University Vice President and Counsel Mary Kenard has complained that Wetmore ignores the university's admonitions and puts derogatory comments about university staff on his site. She has warned that future activities will result in further disciplinary action.

Ladner has not yet responded to FIRE's request.