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First Amendment for me — but not for you?

UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI

First Amendment for me — but not for you?

In a recent column, I noted how some politicians campaign against journalists (or, stated in a pejorative tone, “the media”). That’s easier than answering uncomfortable questions or running against the other person on the ballot.

For example, when seeking re-election in 1992, George H.W. Bush campaigned so hard against the news media that reporters and photographers covering Bush’s rallies suffered taunts, insults and physical attacks from attendees.

In the interval between writing and publishing that column, I read about aggression against journalists at the University of Missouri.

As a Missouri journalism graduate, I was disappointed by events on the campus in Columbia, which is said to have more journalists (student and professional) per capital than any city anywhere.

My disappointment turned to a sick feeling when I learned that the physical interference with journalists’ First Amendment rights was aided, abetted and encouraged by faculty and staff members.

The incident took place during a protest on open space on the public university’s campus. The protest, mostly by students, concerned racial incidents and the administration’s response, which the students considered unacceptable.

The main group of protesters called themselves Concerned Student 1950 (referring to the year the first black students were admitted to Missouri). There was an incident between protesters and the university president’s car in the Homecoming parade. A graduate student started a hunger strike. The weeks-long simmer was turning into a boil.

However, administrators had to know they were in trouble when the football squad said it would boycott team activities -including games — unless Tim Wolfe, the university system president, resigned or was fired. A top administrator is a small price to pay to keep the football schedule intact. Wolfe resigned. In a strange move, Concerned Student 1950 decided that it didn’t want any news coverage of its public protest. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s and anti-war protests of the 1970s, protesters wanted news coverage. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Anyway, members of Concerned Student 1950 gathered on Mel Carnahan Quadrangle and exercised their First Amendment rights -freedom of speech, of assembly, of petition and, if there were prayers, of religion.

Yet, at the same time, they chose to interfere with others’ First Amendment rights — freedom of the press. Journalists were blocked, pushed and harassed.

It’s bad enough that students were involved in that, but it’s worse that faculty and staff members instigated the infringement.

Leading the charge was Melissa Click, a member of the Communications faculty who held an honorary appointment to the School of Journalism. (Communications and journalism are separate programs at Missouri. Click didn’t teach journalism classes, thankfully.) Click was captured on video confronting student-journalist Mark Schierbecker, trying to block and grab his camera and then calling out to protesters to provide some “muscle” against him. Later, seeing a student hold up a poster to block his camera, Click shouted, “Good job!” Also confronting and harassing journalists, and encouraging students to swarm them, were Click’s husband, Richard “Chip” Callahan, chair of the Religious Studies Department, and Janna Basler, assistant director for Greek Life and Leadership.

As friend and former Mizzou roommate Ken Paulson wrote last week in USA Today, “Suddenly the idealists looked like bullies, seemingly oblivious to anyone’s rights but their own, and apparently unaware that a free press has long amplified the courageous work of those who fought for civil rights. Those who marched and protested were the heroes of the movement, but it was national coverage of their brave acts that helped turn the tide.”

Paulson added, “The incident gives critics of ‘political correctness’ ammunition. They point to the hypocrisy of the students who demand to be heard, but are willing to silence others.”

All the credit in the world goes to Schierbecker and another photographer, Tim Tai (working for ESPN), who despite the interference, threats and physical contact, kept their cool and claimed their First Amendment right to photograph a public event on public property.

After the video garnered millions of views on YouTube, Click and Callahan issued public apologies and apologized in a private phone call to Tai. Basler, who publicly apologized, is suspended from her job. Click resigned the courtesy appointment to the journalism school before the school could rescind it.

Concern about the denial of First Amendment rights extends beyond one rally on one campus in mid-Missouri. “Unless we convey to the next generation that freedom of speech works best when we’re willing to listen to others,” Paulson wrote, “we’ll continue to have a national conversation based on outrage and anger.”

Reach Telegraph-Herald Executive Editor Brian Cooper at [email protected]

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