One of many noteworthy aspects of the recent protests over racial inequality on dozens of America’s college campuses has been the effort by some protesters to bar members of the press in the name of creating a “safe space” to air their grievances. Many students have voiced concerns that the media would mischaracterize the story or, conversely, that the mere presence of journalists in a public forum would make students uncomfortable voicing their opinions.
On November 9, University of Missouri communications professor Melissa Click made headlines when she asked for “muscle” to remove a student journalist from a campus protest at which student protesters chanted: “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go!” Click apologized and resigned from a courtesy appointment she held in Mizzou’s journalism school over the incident. Another campus administrator apologized for confronting a student news photographer at the same rally. The protesters later changed course, posting signs that media were allowed and encouraging other students to welcome them.
Citing solidarity with students at Mizzou, the Chicago Tribune reported that later that week protesters at Loyola University Chicago “imitated controversial techniques Missouri protesters used that limited access to the local media they invited.” Specifically, a student-run publication at Loyola, The Black Tribune, posted a “call to action” committing to organize on-campus demonstrations around the country. According to the Chicago Tribune, The Black Tribune invited numerous news outlets to cover its rally November 12. But then at the rally, the demonstrators formed a circle and asked that members of the press (save for writers for The Black Tribune) keep out. The Chicago Tribune reported:
"Hey, no media in the circle," Ryan Sorrell, chief editor of The Black Tribune, said holding his hand up to a cameraman. "Sorry, man. You're good, but just not in the circle."
Students then tightened the circle and yelled, "Lock arms!"
Sorrell told the Student Press Law Center that he and other protesters feared the media would “mis-portray and misinterpret” their rally.
Citing similar concerns over coverage of their own pro-Mizzou-protests demonstration, students at Smith College in Massachusetts required media covering the story to “articulate solidarity” with the cause or leave, a demand Smith administrators reportedly backed. Student organizer Alyssa Mata-Flores told MassLive that the “media has historically painted radical black movements as violent and aggressive”:
"We are asking that any journalists or press that cover our story participate and articulate their solidarity with black students and students of color," she told MassLive in the Student Center Wednesday. "By taking a neutral stance, journalists and media are being complacent in our fight."
Last Thursday, administrators at Emporia State University in Kansas briefly banned reporters whom they had asked to cover a public forum on race after students said the reporters’ presence made them uncomfortable. Emporia State administrators re-admitted the media after the university’s lawyer advised them that their actions were likely illegal because the event was a public forum. The Wichita Eagle’s Bryan Lowry reported that banning the reporters was “a move the university acknowledges likely violated the First Amendment and Kansas open meetings laws.”
Emporia State spokesperson Gwen Larson told the Eagle:
“It is a balancing act. Obviously, we fully support the First Amendment, the rights of the public and the press. On the other hand, we need and want our students to feel safe to express their concerns, share their experiences,” she said. “So we need to in the future to find a way that balances both of those.”
The Eagle reported that the University of Kansas also recently banned invited journalists from using recording equipment to cover a forum on diversity. KU cited student discomfort with the recordings for the move, yet other students were allowed to personally record the meeting.
Students are free to call for limiting press access. When enforced by administrators at public colleges, such restrictions often violate the First Amendment and cannot stand. But regardless of legality, protesters of all kinds should be wary of taking this step. Not only does controversy over excluding the media risk overwhelming the intended message of the protest, but traditionally, the presence of reporters has been one of the most important checks on the power of authorities to forcibly (and sometimes brutally) suppress a protest. Anyone protesting authorities they believe to be capable of injustice should think hard before confronting those authorities behind closed doors.