First Amendment v. Privacy?

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.

Update: From The New York Times:

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.

4 thoughts on “First Amendment v. Privacy?

  1. I had the same reaction on twitter this a.m. about it. I have that same sense of contradictory pull you express. I also think there’s something else here that matters-which is the echo chamber of relations between Asian American and Black students on US campuses. The Asian American student is not “white,” and probably doesn’t find much comfort in the stereotype of “model minority.” On the other hand, I think that Asian American students do not always grasp the Black American experience. On some campuses, mainly on the West Coast, there is a history of Asian American Black coalition. On others, in states such as Missouri, I suspect that race relations are understood on a strictly Black-white grid, and obviously that is the specific context of the developments at U of M. Faculty, however, need to be aware of racial histories that are not simply Black-white. I think she could have handled the situation better, even if the student journalist was white, but when you add in the mix of what may be cross-racial misunderstanding, it seems important for the faculty member to not assume that the student is simply a “journalist” or a “white journalist.”

    It seems there’s likely a complicated context that may not boil down to white journalistic arrogance/free press rights v Black student vulnerability/right to space to work with each other.

  2. “forgiving the students for, in their passion, ignoring a First Amendment they inadequately understand.”

    They’ve all gone to high school, and graduated with good enough grades to get into college. How is it that they don’t understand the First Amendment? What are they teaching in school if not that?

    “Still, I do not believe that either Brasler or Click was acting dishonorably,”

    Click is a Professor of Mass Media Studies. How can someone with THAT position not understand the First Amendment?

    “They could have explained that, in a situation of clashing rights,”

    What clashing rights? What conflict of rights was there? What rights did the students have that the reporter was violating? Let me save you the time – none. The students had no rights that the reporter was violating. There were no “clashing rights”.

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