Corrected, 11/10: A previous version of this article misquoted Tai. He said, “How about documenting this for posterity?”
MISSOURI — A video of an angry encounter between a student photographer, student protesters and a communications professor has gone viral, sparking a national debate on press freedom and safe spaces for people of color.
Tim Tai, a student at the University of Missouri who was freelancing for ESPN, was trying to photograph a camp site on the campus quad where protesters have been staying. The protesters, part of a group called Concerned Student 1950 that has been calling attention to racial issues on campus, demanded Tai give them privacy and stop taking pictures. Mark Schierbecker, another student photographer, was recording the entire interaction. (The full 12 minute video is here.)
As the students chanted “hey, hey, ho, ho, reporters have to go,” Tai continued to protest, saying, “This is the First Amendment. It protects your right to be here and mine!”
One student asked, “How about humanity and respect?” Tai countered, “How about documenting this for posterity?”
As the chants grew louder, the students swarmed Tai. He yelled at them to stop pushing. Eventually, the students start walking forward towards him, crowding him out of the area.
The quad is public property, so the First Amendment rights of free assembly and free press apply. This summer, Missouri passed a law that eliminates “free speech zones” on college campuses and allows protests and speech to happen at any outdoor place on campus.
Near the end of the video, Schierbecker approached Melissa Click, an assistant professor of mass media in Missouri’s communication department, and identified himself as a member of the media, asking to talk to her.
Click repeatedly said, “No, you need to get out,” and at one point, grabs at the camera, shaking it. Shierbecker said he did not need to leave, and Click walks away, yelling, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”
The video has triggered outcry from journalists and free speech advocates across the country.
Andrew Seaman, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee, said in a statement that there was “no explanation and no excuse” for a professor assaulting and threatening student journalists.
“Whoever assaulted and threatened the student journalist should be ashamed and held accountable for their actions. The student journalist in the video, on the other hand, should be commended for the responsible behavior throughout a clearly evolving and intense situation,” he said. “The bottom line is that the same First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that protects the freedom of assembly also guarantees the freedom of the press.”
Meanwhile, activists have argued that a mostly-white media has now hijacked the story, removing attention from the students who have been fighting for action against racism on campus, whose successful campaign resulted in Monday’s announcement that both system President Tim Wolfe and university Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin were leaving their jobs. Some have argued that the student activists deserve a “safe space” and might not trust the media’s intentions.
The official Twitter account of Concerned Student 1950 said that they are asking for no media in the tent city so “fellowship, & sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives … white, black, and all other ethnicities have been able to converse and build from fellowshipping at the camp site. That isn’t for your story.”
For his part, Tai tweeted that the larger story is not about First Amendment issues, but rather a culture of systemic racism in colleges like Missouri.
“A lot of hardworking journalists were physically blocked from doing their jobs — I just happened to be on video. I didn’t ask for notoriety,” he tweeted. “I don’t have any ill will toward the people in the video. I think they had good intentions though I’m not sure why it resorted to shoving.”
For more reaction from both sides, see the Storify of tweets:
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