The Safest Space is the First Amendment

This simply amazing video is making the rounds. You need to see it.

That video depicts students and faculty at the University of Missouri harassing and assaulting two journalists, including undergraduate MU photojournalism major Tim Tai, who was freelancing for ESPN. These protesters affirmatively prevented two photographers from doing their jobs. More ominously, towards the end of the video, Assistant Professor of Mass Media Melissa Click called for “muscle” to help physically assault and remove the videographer – MU junior Mark Schierbecker – from the area.

So, we had a faculty member – an employee of a public, government institution – calling out for people to help her assault a student in a public space at a public university for the vicious crime of documenting a news event. Adding to the irony, Click chairs the Student Publications Committee on campus. The blonde woman with the North Face yelling at Tai to, “back off” is Janna Basler, UM’s director of Greek life and leadership.

Click has since apologized and resigned one of her appointments. (Text here). As usual, internet cretins have called in loads of death threats and worse. The chairman of the communications department on campus wrote,

Faculty (and students) have a right to express their views, but they do NOT have the right to intimidate others. This has been an awful time for the university, but that in no way condones intimidation.

The underlying purpose of the protests themselves is laudable – to confront and end systemic racism at the university. The protest organizers, “Concerned Student 1950“, invoke the year that black students were first allowed to attend that school. They use the tactics of the 1950s and 1960s to battle against racist incidents that took place at the school for which its administration had no reaction whatsoever. It wasn’t until the football team threatened to boycott and forfeit a game to spur some sort of positive action from the administration.

But it was charges of persistent racism, particularly complaints of racial epithets hurled at the student body president, who is black, that sparked the strongest reactions, along with complaints that the administration did not take the problem seriously enough.

The video above was shot in the wake of the University president’s resignation. The protesters randomly – and virtually – cordoned off an area of the quad where they were encamped and physically blocked reporters from doing their jobs. If you hold a public protest on a public space at a public university, you don’t have the right to assault a reporter, to touch him in any way, to censor the reporting, or to otherwise use force to remove him from the premises.

In response to the imbroglio, Tai wrote,

As a photojournalist, my job is often intrusive and uncomfortable. I don’t take joy in that. …You take the scene as it presents itself, and you try to make impactful images that tell the story. … And sometimes you have to put down the camera. But national breaking news on a public lawn is not one of those times.

If you show up to a protest in a public place, you don’t get to withhold consent to be photographed or otherwise documented by reporters.

I don’t know why another student with a camera reporting for the NY Times or ESPN renders your “space” “unsafe”, but what those people did to those reporters has absolutely nothing to do with “political correctness”. The 1st Amendment trumps your desire to be left alone if you do it outside in public.

What you see in that video has to do with fascism – pure and simple. Those students and faculty were no different from blackshirts or militia intimidating and assaulting reporters in pre-1975 Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, or pre-war Italy. Harrassment and violence against members of the press, and aggressive hostility against press freedoms is a hallmark of anti-democratic totalitarianism.

The students – they get the benefit of the doubt. It’s neither novel nor surprising that students would be somewhat ignorant of the 1st Amendment and how it works. But the adult members of faculty and administration – their behavior is shocking and inexcusable.

Basler and Click tried to regulate First Amendment activity in a public forum (i.e., the media’s peaceable assembly and newsgathering).* That potentially exposes them and the University of Missouri to liability under 42 USC § 1983, a federal law that allows individuals to sue public agents and entities for deprivations of civil or constitutional rights. Because of the physical contact shown on the video, it’s even possible that they could be liable for assault in the third degree under Missouri law.

Ultimately, that behavior undermines whatever point the protesters are trying to make. The 1st Amendment not only protects the protesters’ right to demonstrate, speak, and assembly, but it also protects the rights of reporters to photograph, video, and report.

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