Missouri professor Melissa Click charged with assault for threatening a student photojournalist

MISSOURI — The Columbia City Prosecutor’s Office has filed an assault charge against University of Missouri Assistant Professor Melissa Click, who sparked a firestorm of criticism after trying to bar a student photographer from a public protest last November.

A spokeswoman from the city prosecutor’s office said the office filed a third-degree assault charge Monday morning. The spokeswoman said Click faces a class C misdemeanor, which carries a possible punishment of 15 days in jail.

Click, who teaches in the Department of Communication, made national news after a video of the protest went viral online and showed protesters confronting Missouri student Tim Tai, who was freelancing for ESPN at the time and trying to photograph the campsite set up by protesters on the campus quad.

In the video, Click yells, “No, you need to get out,” multiple times when approached by student photojournalist Mark Schierbecker, eventually grabbing and shaking his camera. When Schierbecker responded that he did not need to leave, Click walked away yelling, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”

“Just the threat of assault can stop a reporter dead in their tracks,” Schierbecker said. “But luckily I was persistent enough to stay and record what I needed for evidence.”

The protesters were members of the Concerned Student 1950 group, who were fighting to expose racism and race-related incidents at the university. Their activism ultimately resulted in the resignations of the Missouri chancellor and university system president.

Click did not immediately respond to the Student Press Law Center’s requests for comment. She has publicly apologized and has resigned her courtesy appointment with Missouri’s journalism school, along with her position as chair of the student publications committee. A Missouri journalism professor also filed a Title IX complaint against Click.

About 115 Missouri Republican lawmakers have called for Click to be fired. In response, the same number of Missouri faculty members and staff wrote a letter in support of Click, calling her actions “at most a regrettable mistake.”

While Schierbecker said he is pleased the prosecutor’s office filed an assault charge, he said Click is symptom of a larger, systemic problem that prevents student journalists from reporting on their schools.

“The free speech debate does not start and end with Melissa Click,” Schierbecker said, adding that more must be done to protect student journalists’ free speech rights.

“I think we have a lot further to go to get administrators to address our concerns,” he said.

Schierbecker said he supports a recently filed piece of legislation, House Bill 1637, that would require students at two-year or four-year public colleges in Missouri to take a three-credit course on the freedom of speech as a prerequisite for graduation.

“If that were to pass, I would feel somewhat more comfortable newsgathering on campus in the future, if I knew that everyone else has the same First Amendment background as I have,” he said.

Schierbecker said he is also calling on state legislators to pass the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act, which would protect student journalists’ rights “to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media,” according to the bill.

The New Voices bill, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Elijah Haahr, would restore many of the protections withdrawn by the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, which says that school officials have the authority to censor student journalism for any reasonable educational justification.

The bill would also prevent school officials from using prior restraint over student media, except for certain situations, such as if the students were to incite a disruption, publish libelous material, invade privacy or violate federal or state law.

The New Voices bill, Schierbecker said, would protect student journalists from overbearing administrators and would allow student journalists to report the truth. The bill is scheduled for its first committee hearing Feb. 1 in the House Committee on Emerging Issues.

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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