BY JOHN K. WILSON
I have not previously spoken out in defense of Melissa Click, the University of Missouri professor who was loudly denounced for supporting a student protest by keeping out student journalists. Like many others, I strongly opposed her actions, and despite many threats against her and calls for her dismissal, she was not actually punished for what she did. Until this week.
On Jan. 25, interim Chancellor Hank Foley said the university would “allow due process to play out.” That position lasted exactly two days, when the Board of Curators revoked due process and decided to suspend Click on Jan. 27: “MU Professor Melissa Click is suspended pending further investigation” which will “determine whether additional discipline is appropriate.”
There was no hearing or investigation, and apparently no opportunity for Click to defend herself. The Board of Curators is not a disciplinary body, and this suspension is a violation of the University of Missouri policies, and a violation of the First Amendment protections of academic freedom, because Click is being targeted disproportionately for her ideology because her actions in no way justify such a harsh penalty.
On a procedural level, what happened to Click is absolutely indefensible. Click never received due process. No matter what you think of Click, the use of “suspension” to punish people before an investigation (which is what the Board then calls for) and hearing can be conducted is appalling. Suspension is a punishment. It shouldn’t be used to precede a case unless someone poses an ongoing immediate threat on campus (as Click obviously doesn’t). For professors, a suspension effectively silences their speech in the classroom—all of it. The use of suspension as a penalty before any investigation takes place is fundamentally unjust.
On a substantive level, does Click’s assault merit her suspension or dismissal? No. First of all, this is an “assault” in name only. Most people imagine that an “assault” is a vicious physical attack causing potential harm to another. What Click did, at worst, was momentarily grab a camera. She caused no damage, and no violence. It’s roughly the level of violence you might experience at a crowded rock concert where people get jostled from time to time. The fact that a prosecutor went after Click on a patently political charge of assault, and that she made a deal over this minor charge (which is not a conviction), is irrelevant to a campus disciplinary proceeding. I routinely see accused criminals on a perp walk going through a line of photographers being jostled and pushed, and no one is charged with assault for touching a camera.
Click is also accused of calling upon others to commit violence because she said, “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.” The notion that Click was calling upon people to beat up a student journalist is ridiculous. There is no evidence to support any such interpretation, when Click was simply trying to block the journalist’s access to the protest, which is obviously what she wanted the “muscle” to do. Punishing someone for a purely speculative crime like this would be ludicrous.
No, the real harm caused by Click was not violence or the threat of violence, it was the suppression of freedom of the press in seeking to keep media out of the area. That was the only crime here.
So, was Click wrong to try to keep media out of the protest area? Yes, she was definitely wrong, although some might point out there is a double standard here: the administration routinely keeps the media out of their spaces where they gather to plan strategies dealing with protesters, and a journalist who tried to enter their conference rooms would be quickly arrested. So why shouldn’t protesters have the same “safe spaces” to privately discuss their plans? Well, that’s part of the nature of a protest occupying a public space, that you have to give up some of your privacy. And the protesters at Mizzou deserve a lot of credit for immediately recognizing this fact, reversing their policy, and welcoming the media in. And Click herself has acknowledged she was wrong, publicly apologizing for her actions.
But being wrong doesn’t necessarily justify a punishment, especially one as harsh as suspension or firing. What Click did seems less severe than stealing newspapers or seeking to punish a journalist. Basically, I would rate it as similar to an administration that fails to respond appropriately to an FOIA request and denies a journalist access to information they should have, as Click sought to deny a journalist access to part of the protest. If a public university employee had wrongly failed to fulfill an FOIA request, and then immediately apologized, what should be the punishment? I can’t see how such a minor offense would deserve more than public criticism, or perhaps a formal reprimand.
While there are some principled defenders of free speech and freedom of the press who call for taking a hard line against Click, that does not really describe the 117 Republican legislators who demanded her firing, the trustees who ordered her suspension, or the prosecutor who pressed charges against her. Instead, what is happening to Click is retaliation for her political views. These people dislike the protesters, but since the protest is protected speech, they instead target a high-profile sympathizer who made a mistake in her zealous support of the protesters.
Let’s imagine that a campus police officer did the exact same actions that Click did, trying to prevent a student from recording the Board of Curators as they walked on campus. Does anyone imagine for a moment that these Curators would impose a suspension of the campus cop? Or that prosecutors would file charges? Or that Republican legislators would demand the officer’s dismissal?
The punishment Click has already received is far in excess of what her crimes deserve. Every year, there are hundreds of infringements of free speech on campuses far worse than Click’s, and the people responsible almost never apologize, and are never punished by the university for their actions. A suspension is completely out of proportion to her errors.