The eyes of the nation are on the University of Missouri today. Ongoing student protests resulted in the resignations of the university system president and the chancellor of the flagship Columbia campus yesterday afternoon. Then, yesterday evening, video surfaced on social media of a professor’s demand that force be used against journalists trying to photograph student protesters against their will.
Today, a “PSA” from the student protesters reaffirmed the media’s First Amendment right to cover the story, hopefully allaying future First Amendment concerns where the rights of student journalists are concerned.
However, a campus-wide email from the University of Missouri Police Department sent this morning warned that Mizzou can punish students for “hurtful” speech.
Accusations of Racism
Protests over race relations at Mizzou were sparked in September when Missouri Students Association President Payton Head posted on Facebook about being subjected to racial slurs on campus. Weeks later, the Legion of Black Collegians (Mizzou’s Black Student Government) followed up with a letter sharing its members’ similar experiences with racism. In response to these and other accounts, Mizzou Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced mandatory diversity training for students, faculty, and staff.
The campus protest movement Concerned Student 1950 (a reference to the year black students were first admitted to the university) argued that Mizzou’s administration was not adequately addressing racism on campus. The group issued a list of demands, including more mandatory racial awareness training, to be overseen by “students, staff, and faculty of color,” and the removal from office of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe. Wolfe refused to meet their demands and claimed that he was "'not completely' aware of systemic racism, sexism, and patriarchy on campus." On November 2, Mizzou grad student Jonathan Butler announced that he would begin a hunger strike in protest, refusing to eat “until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.”
Students began protesting, camping in Mizzou’s Carnahan Quadrangle, and boycotting the university’s services in support of Butler. Wolfe apologized, asking students to “rise to the challenge of combatting racism, injustice, and intolerance." Protests ensued, including one by members of Mizzou’s football team, who announced on Saturday that they would not play until Butler ended his hunger strike. This proved to be the final straw, resulting in the resignations of both Wolfe and Loftin yesterday. The Columbia Missourian’s comprehensive report offers a more complete analysis of the incidents leading up to Wolfe’s resignation.
Protesters’ Response to Wolfe’s Resignation
Yesterday morning, thousands of protesters took to Carnahan Quadrangle to celebrate Wolfe’s resignation. FIRE takes no stance on the content of the protests. We believe that students’ ability to hold protests like these on campus without administrative or police interference is vitally important—that’s why we worked with Missouri’s legislature to pass the Campus Free Expression (CAFE) Act earlier this year. The new law prohibits public universities like Mizzou from silencing student voices by quarantining them into tiny or remote free speech zones.
In that spirit, FIRE is troubled by the treatment of student journalists Tim Tai and Mark Schierbecker, who attempted to film and photograph events on campus yesterday morning. Schierbecker reports that trouble at the protest began when reporters attempted to photograph the event and talk with students. Concerned Student 1950 protesters formed a human chain around the encampments in the center of the quad (where students had been living during their protest against Wolfe) and refused to allow non-protesters to pass. The protesters chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go,” refused to allow members of the media past the chain, and posted “No Media Safe Space” signs. Schierbecker’s account describes how “hell broke loose” at the protest:
I got the call that all my other classes would be canceled but one. The announcement was made at about 10:20 that Wolfe was resigning. A large crowd immediately started growing on Carnahan Quad. A black student leader spoke for a bit for the group but because most of the other #ConcernedStudent1950 leaders were not there, they opted not to have any formal announcement. There were some group celebrations afterward with journalists hanging around the main group. The #ConcernedStudent1950 leaders then asked for media to leave so that the group leaders could strategize in the encampment. This is when hell broke loose as some 20 journalists were all turned away from the site and told to back away further than “personal space” requires. Some of the organizers threatened to call the police if they refused to step back. [. . .] The group set up a perimeter some 50 feet away from the camp. ConcernedStudent1950 had prepared signs that told the media to stay back. It was organized.
Via Twitter, Concerned Student 1950 explained its opposition to media coverage as a desire to have its spaces respected, writing, “We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship, & sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives.” As Tai and Schierbecker moved towards the crowd, they quickly learned what happened when they were too close to the protesters’ “personal space.”
A line of protesters met them, physically pushing them away and refusing to allow them to pass, blocking their cameras with their hands, and telling them “you do not have the right to take our photo.” Tai explained his First Amendment rights to the protesters, stating (correctly) that “[t]he First Amendment protects your right to stand here, and mine.” The protesters continued to push him away.
To be perfectly clear, student journalists do have the right to take photos and protesters do not have a right to push away journalists. Students engaged in public protest, the very purpose of which is visibility, cannot credibly argue that they have any reasonable expectation of privacy.
You can see the entire interaction in Schierbecker’s recording:
Professor’s Demand for “Muscle”
The most troubling incident in the recording, starting at the 7:12 mark, occurred when Schierbecker approached Assistant Professor of Communications Melissa Click inside the ring of protesters. He explained that he was a journalist and that he wished to speak with her. She immediately demanded he leave and appeared to grab his camera. (Speaking of things protesters do not have a right to do, that is one of them.)
Schierbecker, acting within his rights, refused to leave. Click alarmingly responded by yelling, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here. Help me get him out.” That Click’s demand for protesters to use force on a student journalist is fundamentally illiberal cannot be stated strongly enough. It’s one thing to incorrectly claim that journalists, often the greatest check against violence committed against protesters, cannot be in a public space. It’s another thing entirely for her to believe she has a right to use force to remove them.
As students surrounded him, Schierbecker again reiterated that protesters cannot force him to leave public space. Click mockingly replied, “Yeah that’s a really good one, I’m a communications faculty and I really get that argument but you need to go. You need to go.” She’s right about one thing, at least: Schierbecker’s argument is a really good one. It’s an argument that one might expect a professor of communications to respect. Apparently, members of Mizzou’s School of Journalism agree. The Columbia Missourian reports today that faculty began voting to remove Click from her courtesy appointment in the School of Journalism. She will retain her position in the university’s Department of Communication.
University of Missouri Police Department Responds (Badly)
As this controversy continued generating headlines, this morning Mizzou’s Police Department emailed the campus community asking students to report incidents of “hurtful speech” and warning the campus community that the university’s Office of Student Conduct can take “disciplinary action” against students for such expression. This is a blatant misstatement of the First Amendment. As a public university, Mizzou cannot punish speech simply because it’s hurtful to others.
FIRE supports students’ right to protest. We’re encouraged to see that Mizzou’s administration appears to have respected the protesters’ rights thus far. It’s troubling to think what could have happened to protesters if they were not protected by the CAFE Act, which requires Mizzou to allow protest on campus public spaces. What FIRE cannot support, however, is the use of force by protesters against student journalists and the police department’s claims that a university can punish hurtful speech. Protest, counterprotest, and media coverage of both are protected by the First Amendment, and it’s important that every member of the Mizzou campus community remembers that.
Fortunately, it appears that Concerned Student 1950 protesters have received that message. Today, a student representative told a journalist that they are attempting to change their relationship with the press, saying "we're students, we're learning as we go along.” Members also appear to be handing out flyers explaining that the incident with the press was a “teachable moment,” and acknowledging that the press has a right to cover the protest. Assuming this apparent change of heart is reflected in the protesters’ actions going forward, the next critical step is for the University of Missouri police and administration to disavow any intention to punish people for protected expression, as threatened in the police department’s email. Free expression at Mizzou will not be safe until they do.