SPLC's Frank LoMonte on Missouri press freedom conflict: "Those who make history are not its exclusive owners"

November 10, 2015    
Contact: Frank LoMonte, Executive Director 
director@splc.org or 202-872-1704

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte, on the conflict between a student photographer and protesters at the University of Missouri: 

“It is never comfortable for a journalistic observer to find himself at the center of a national news event. Student photojournalist Tim Tai handled the confrontation on the quad of the University of Missouri with admirable professionalism, and he has continued to do so afterward as a voice of calm, maturity and good sense. Like any good photojournalist, Tim knew and respectfully asserted his right to document events visible from a public space where he was legally entitled to stand.

The progress won by the racial-justice movement at Missouri owes everything to a vigorously enforced First Amendment. The same First Amendment that enabled members of Concerned Student 1950 to confront President Wolfe during the Homecoming parade and to encamp on the university quad is what protects the rights of Tim Tai and all journalists to tell their story. We do not create an inclusive campus through exclusion, and we do not create “safe spaces” by threatening violence. The progress won through Concerned Student advocacy was a victory for students everywhere, and those unable to be present in Columbia deserved to share in that triumph through the images that fearless and well-trained photojournalists like Tim Tai can deliver. Those who make history are not its exclusive owners. It is encouraging to see the “No Media” signs coming down across the quad, and we hope that the leadership of a university where journalism is such a highly regarded program will harness this “teachable moment” to educate the entire campus about the irreplaceable role that an uninhibited press plays in the civic health of all communities.

The conduct of Prof. Click, as described by witnesses and depicted on a widely disseminated video clip from the protest scene, is deeply disturbing. As a campus authority figure, it was her responsibility to exercise mature judgment at a volatile moment when students were in harm’s way. Instead, the video indicates that she inflamed the situation by calling for violence. If she is allowed to remain at the University, it must follow a heartfelt apology evidencing that she genuinely appreciates the seriousness of her misjudgment. She should resign at once from the Student Publications Committee or be removed, having exhibited disregard for the welfare of student journalists. We suggest that Prof. Click tangibly demonstrate her contrition by writing a paper and teaching a seminar about the central role that photojournalists played in America’s civil-rights movement, during which the presence of courageous news-gatherers, pushing against boundaries to put themselves in harm’s way, ensured that racial violence would find no safe space.

We congratulate the bold young leaders at the University of Missouri who, through at times significant personal sacrifice, brought about revolutionary change in the culture of their institution. We join them in calling for a transparent selection process for Wolfe’s successor in which candidates have substantive interaction with rank-and-file students, faculty and staff, wholly unlike the illicit closed-door search that resulted in choosing a president incapable of carrying on a civil conversation with students. Establishing a meaningful voice for all students in campus decision-making, not the abhorrent behavior of Melissa Click, will be the enduring story for which Columbia will be remembered.”

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship.