I’ve been watching with dismay the coverage of the incident yesterday where University of Missouri professor Melissa Click asked, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.” To me, she seems to have moved from supporting the student protesters (which I applaud) who had created a tent city and what they claimed was a ‘safe space’ away from the media to a position of protecting the students–something I am not sure they need from faculty. And something that puts her in a precarious ethical situation.
Click and student Tim Tai, one of the two photojournalists involved, seem to have suddenly become pawns in the political maneuvering surrounding the abrupt resignation of Tim Wolfe, the university president. Each was, I think, trying to act in a principled fashion and from the best of motives. Tai is right when he claims First Amendment protection–but he might have asked himself if the story could not be found from a bit more of a distance. Without, that is, intrusion. Maybe he did, but his answer was the one too common to journalists: The story trumps all. Click was right to see Tai’s presence as intrusive–but she was wrong to start acting in a policing role.
This is a complicated story, and I am not sure how I feel about it. To do something in public and then to claim privacy for the act, as the protesters did, well, that seems a bit problematic. A bit like having and eating cake. The very act of establishing a tent city invites media scrutiny–is intended to attract scrutiny. As a reporter, though, I always went away when asked–and always found there was another way to get the story.
Right now, my inclination is to come down on Tai’s side of this. University of Kansas professor Jonathan Peters, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, is about the only commentator I have read so far who seems to understand just why. He divides the student protesters from Click and administrator Janna Basler, forgiving the students for, in their passion, ignoring a First Amendment they inadequately understand. He writes:
The adults, however, are another story…. But based on the evidence in the video, they behaved inexcusably—as adults in positions of some authority who should have known better. They should have known better than to think that people gathered in public have a right “to be alone,” and known better than to call for “some muscle” to “get this reporter out of here.” Basler and Click treated students at their own university, journalists or not, in a way that dishonored the public trust placed in educators.
That seems harsh, but I tend to agree–for the most part. As authority figures (whether they wanted to be or not, their university roles place them there), they needed to act to diffuse, not escalate, the situation. Instead of confronting the student journalists, they could have taken them aside, even agreeing to be interviewed in lieu of the student protesters. They could have explained that, in a situation of clashing rights, respect for the other can go a long way toward resolving the problem.
Still, I do not believe that either Brasler or Click was acting dishonorably, as Peters does. They were trying to do the best they could in a difficult situation. They were wrong, I suspect, but I cannot go further and impugn their motives.
In a statement on Tuesday, Ms. Click said, “I regret the language and strategies I used, and sincerely apologize to the M.U. campus community, and journalists at large, for my behavior, and also for the way my actions have shifted attention away from the students’ campaign for justice.” She said she had called the journalists involved to apologize, personally.