University of Missouri

Photo courtesy of University of Missouri

Communications Professor at Missouri Challenges Freedom of Press

| published November 10, 2015 |

By Thursday Review editors

Confrontations at the University of Missouri this week have triggered arguments about the Bill of Rights, freedom of the press, and student rights, as dozens of students—including members of faculty—challenged the notion that reporters and photographers have the right to capture images of the on-campus protests.

This week, amid the racial tensions which forced the resignation of several top university officials, including university president Tim Wolfe, student and youth reporters faced angry and often physical confrontations with protesters, who pushed or shoved videographers and photographers from an area now an ad hoc tent city on campus.

As photographer/reporter Tim Tai, using a digital SLR camera, attempted to snap photos of the protest site and the hundreds of protesters milling about inside the tent city, another student, Mark Schierbecker, captured the entire confrontation on a small video camera. At first, only several students try to dissuade Tai from taking photos, but as tensions rise, more students join in the fray. Soon there are dozens shouting at Tai or attempting to nudge him backwards. Other students stand nearby with their own cameras capturing the confrontation.

Professors and faculty members soon appear to join the confrontation, insisting that student privacy is what is at issue. When Tai and others tell the students that the 1st Amendment protects both the students’ freedom to assemble as well the reporters’ freedom to chronicle the protests, many of the students balk—seemingly unaware even that freedom of the press exists. Tai tries to take a few photographs by raising his arms and extending the camera high over his head—a tactic often taught in photojournalism—but many of the protesters raise their hands as well, and use the opportunity to push Tai back further.

When Tai again points out that the 1st Amendment protects all citizens’ rights, some students angrily yell that it does not protect reporters or cameras. Tai also tries to point out that the university is public, not private property, but the students also disregard this notion.

Later, as students push some reporters back further, Schierbecker—who was recording the entire confrontation with his video camera only a few feet away—is confronted angrily by assistant professor Melissa Click, who demands that Schierbacker stop recording and leave the area. Click tells Schierbecker that he does not have the right to be there, and Shierbecker responds calmly “yes, I do,” apparently aware that he does, in fact, have the right to report on protests which take place on public property.

Click then yells to other students, asking them to send volunteers to “muscle” Schierbecker and “get this reporter out of here.”

The confrontation has sparked outrage, not only that reporters at the University of Missouri (several of them students) have been hassled and effectively forced away from the scene of protests, but that faculty and staff have overtly encouraged students to engage in physical confrontation with reporters. Professor Click is easily identifiable in the video as she demands that reporters leave, telling them they have no right to be in the area.

What is unquestionably ironic, and deeply troubling for many who have seen the video, is that Click is an instructor of mass communications and journalism at the University of Missouri, at least according to employees at the school and other reports from media. (Thursday Review checked: the university's website lists Click as an assistant professor with a degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; a quick search of images on Google produced photos of the same person who appears in Schierbecker's video footage, including some academic websites which feature photos of Click). That Click would participate in encouraging students to physically challenge reporters is disturbing enough. But some have questioned her credentials to teach mass communications at the college level if, in fact, she truly believes that reporters do not have to right to report on campus demonstrations and protests.

Also ironic, certainly in an age of the ubiquitous digital cameras now found in devices as small as cell phones, is the apparent randomness of the reaction to Tai’s presence at the demonstration. Though dozens of students heckle and hassle Tai, Schierbecker and others calmly record the confrontation without interference from anyone. Schierbecker is confronted by Click only after Tai has been effectively pushed back to the perimeter of the protest site, which is on a large grassy area on university property. Schierbecker continues to record with his video camera until right after Click shouts for “some muscle” from volunteers standing nearby.

But the richest irony, some freedom-of-information advocates and press advocates have pointed out, is that Professor Click had used social media only days earlier to issue an open call to student reporters and professional reporters to come to the campus for a “scoop on this incredible topic,” telling journalists to send her a message if they needed her help, or if the reporters wished to "help" with the cause, already gaining national attention.

Calls for Click’s immediate dismissal from her post as an assistant professor of mass communications have been swift from some quarters. On social media, Click's behavior toward the reporters has been mocked as irresponsble, as well as demonstrative of someone who does not understand the Bill of Rights. Some have questioned how she was able to qualify as an instructor in mass communications.  A few have defended her actions as those of an individual caught up in the emotions of the events, and not the actions of a professor engaged in the official work of teaching.

The tensions at the University of Missouri have been simmering for months. But the issue came to a head last week when the school's football team and its coaching staff agreed to a sort of walkout, a de facto boycott of upcoming games until college administrators addressed the problem of institutional racism on campus, and investigated incidents of racial epithets and slurs allegedly targeted at African-American and other minority students on campus. The football team’s boycott forced the long-brewing tensions out into the open, and drew a wave of national media attention.

The demonstrations grew in size and scope, and became a more-or-less 24-hour a day part of life on campus during the last week, as protesters from other schools joined in the demonstrations, and as political and community organizers began to appear alongside the protests. Among the protest activities: a hunger strike by student organizer Jonathan Butler, which ended on Monday shortly after Wolfe announced his resignation. Other administrators resigned later on Monday, which led to celebrations by many of the student activists.

The scenes also drew the attention of reporters from all over the country, as once again Missouri was caught in the midst of racial tensions and the national conversation of race relations. Ferguson, Missouri, which was the scene of the some of the worst rioting in decades last year, is about a 90 minute drive from the University.

Tai and Schierbecker both kept their cool during the confrontations. Later, Schierbecker sent this official message out on his Twitter account: I will not allow students to silence dissent by becoming a human meat wall that rolls over journalists doing their jobs.

Tai also tweeted his reaction to the incident: Wow…didn’t mean to become part of the story. Just trying to do my job. Thanks everyone for the support.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Olbermann Suspended After Penn State Twitter Dust-Up; Thursday Review editors; Thursday Review; February 25, 2015.

Rockets, Raucous Riots, And Penn State’s Pitiful Pupils; Thursday Review editors; Thursday Review; February 25, 2015.