ILLINOIS — Just days after the clash between protesters and student photographers at the University of Missouri received national pushback, student protesters at Loyola University Chicago adopted the same “no media” policy during parts of their demonstration.
On Thursday, hundreds of students rallied against racism on campus and spoke out in support of students at Missouri, who have been calling attention to issues of race and successfully campaigned for the resignation of both the university chancellor and the system president.
Then, protesters marched around campus, stopping at a field where they locked hands and formed a circle. Members of The Black Tribune, a publication run by Loyola students of color, asked any outside media to stand outside the perimeter of the protesters’ circle.
“Hey, no media in the circle,” Ryan Sorrell, chief editor of The Black Tribune said to the Chicago Tribune. “Sorry, man. You’re good, but just not in the circle.”
The protesters then locked their arms to tighten the circle, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Black Tribune was not officially a sponsor of the protest, but several of its members were organizers, and the website published a call to action announcing that more than 50 universities, including Loyola, would be holding demonstrations in solidarity with the University of Missouri student activists on Thursday. Chicago news outlets were invited to cover Loyola’s demonstration, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“Basically, we decided to create a safe space for students,” Sorrell said in an interview. “We allowed Black Tribune members to remain inside the circle. We’re also students, we’re representing the student voice. [We’re the] best representation in that circle.”
Student organizers were worried the outside media would “mis-portray and misinterpret” the demonstration, he said.
Sorrell said he didn’t see student journalists from the Loyola Phoenix, the university’s student newspaper, covering the event. But if someone from the paper was there, he said admittance into the circle would depend on the journalist. If the student journalist had a relationship with the student protesters — formed by building trust with the student body through actively and consistently reporting the stories of students of color, Sorrell said — the protesters could trust that there would be an accurate representation of their demonstration.
(The editor of the Phoenix did not respond to a request for comment, but the paper did publish a story on the demonstration. The story does not mention the circle or any ban on documenting it, so it’s unclear if student journalists tried to cover that part of the protest.)
A 30-second Chicago Tribune video of the media ban at the Loyola protest shows a much calmer scene than at the University of Missouri, where protesters yelled angrily at a student photojournalist to stop taking pictures of their campsite — and two university employees have been accused of pushing and touching the student journalists.
At Loyola, a cameraman tried to enter the circle of protesters and was rebuked by a couple of the students. He stepped back as one of the protest organizers called out, “No media in the circle!” (Loyola is a private university, unlike Missouri.)
Sorrell said he thinks the media needs to strike a balance between documenting the ongoing campus protests across the country and respecting students’ privacy.
“I think it’s very important for the media to realize that these are also healing spaces, so when the demonstrations are going on, obviously students want to get some kind of press … but don’t invade people’s healing space by documenting what’s going on,” Sorrell said.
Sorrell went to the University of Missouri last week to report on the protests there. The students let him inside the Black Culture Center on campus, he said, but he didn’t take pictures or videos. He did a couple of interviews, he said, but he felt it was more important to build relationships with people on the ground so he would truly understand what they’re going through.
The question of the media’s responsibility to the marginalized communities they cover has been fiercely debated in recent months. Activists and observers have said that journalists, including student journalists, should be writing about issues that affect minority communities every day, not just when there’s an attention-grabbing protest — something Sorrell said he agreed with.
As the debate between protecting free speech and maintaining safe spaces unfolds on college campuses across the country, even President Barack Obama has weighed in on the issue. In an interview with ABC News, Obama praised the student activists but said it’s important for students to be able to listen to opposing sides even if they feel threatened.
“[We] have these values of free speech. And it’s not free speech in the abstract,” he said. “The purpose of that kind of free speech is to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work. … And I do worry if young people start getting trained to think that if somebody says something that hurts my feelings, that my only recourse is to shut them up, avoid them, push them away, call on a higher power to protect me from that.”
Contact SPLC staff writer Madeline Will at (202) 833-4614 or by email.