The University of Missouri community and millions of YouTube viewers got a painful civics lesson last week as the campus was convulsed by protests against racism, leading to the resignation of two top university officials. While all that was going on, a student journalist was prevented from photographing a temporary encampment by a group of students on the university quad. “You do not respect our space,” he was told, followed up by, “You lost this one, bro.”
The photographer, Tim Tai, was not intimidated and stood his ground. “Ma’am, the First Amendment protects your right to be here and mine,” he said at one point, noting a basic fact that seems to have been lost amid the bullying. More worrisome, the reciprocal basic rights issue was also lost on three faculty members who confronted Tai at various points during a six-minute video of the activity. There is much about the video that is troubling. But its lowest point is when assistant professor Melissa Click — with an appointment at the university’s noted journalism school, no less! — is shown calling out, “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!”
Click has since apologized. But as the supposed adults present, it is disturbing that she and the other faculty members didn’t even attempt to mediate the student confrontation. They seem to have been blind to the obvious: The quad of a public university is public space, and a journalist has the same free-speech rights in that space as do the protestors.
Click’s “I need some muscle” moment is a twisted outgrowth of the protests at the university, where legitimate charges of racism met a slow and unempathetic response from the administration. And it is part of a national discussion on how far free speech goes on campus and how far students should be expected to tolerate speech they find offensive or upsetting.
The university is society’s laboratory, which is why we should be watching and evaluating incidents such as those at the University of Missouri. It is also a truism that people tend to get riled up when it is their ox that is being gored, and in their excitement they sometimes lose sight of the very objective for which they may be advocating.
But there is a universal message: While sensible protections need to be in place to protect students from discrimination, the answer does not lie in trampling upon inoffensive free speech, even if it doesn’t advance a protester’s agenda.