Missouri representative files bill to educate college students in the state on free speech

MISSOURI — Graduates of public higher education institutions in Missouri may soon be required to study the First Amendment.

Republican Rep. Dean Dohrman filed House Bill No. 1637 in December in response to seeing the viral video of the November protests on the University of Missouri campus where students and university employees attempted to limit student journalists’ access by blocking them from covering a public protest.

The bill would require any student graduating after Aug. 28, 2019, from a two or four-year public institution of higher education in Missouri to complete a three-credit-hour course on freedom of speech. The coursework satisfying the requirement includes the study of freedom of speech as embodied in the First Amendment, discussion of the concepts of freedom of inquiry and the history of speech suppression in the U.S. and other countries.

In November, two university employees were caught on video trying to stop Tim Tai, a student photographer on freelance assignment for ESPN, and Mark Schierbecker, the student photojournalist behind the camera, from recording the campsite where student protesters had gathered. The students, who were fighting to expose racism on campus, called their campsite a “safe space” and had signs prohibiting the media from entering.

Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communication, and Janna Basler, assistant director of Greek Life, helped the protesters create a ring of protection around the campsite to keep out the media. When Tai and Schierbecker tried to enter, both faculty members used verbal and physical threats to shoo them away.

The student journalists refused to leave, citing their First Amendment right to be there. Soon after, Click grabbed Schierbecker’s camera and shouted, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”

Schierbecker uploaded the entire exchange to YouTube shortly after, and it subsequently went viral. The two Missouri staff members became symbols of free speech suppression on college campuses nationwide.

Since then, many have come forward in opposition to, and in support of, Click. More than 100 Missouri Republican lawmakers — 18 state senators and 99 House members — have called for Click to be fired for her actions in the video in a letter to top administrators of the University of Missouri system. In response, 117 Missouri faculty and staff wrote a letter in support of Click, calling her actions “at most a regrettable mistake.”

“We call upon the University to defend her first amendment rights of protest and her freedom to act as a private citizen,” the letter states.

Click and Basler have both apologized. Basler was temporarily suspended from her position but is now back at the university, and Click resigned her courtesy appointment with the Missouri School of Journalism and is no longer the chair of the student publications committee. Neither could be reached for comment.

After the video was released, student activists removed the anti-media signs and welcomed journalists instead.

“[The bill] will help all of us, we’ll have a better understanding of our Constitutional system,” Dohrman said. “But the biggest beneficiary will be college students and millennials.”

He said he thinks many people are conflating the idea of First Amendment rights with the idea of civility, and this course could help some distinguish between the two.

“Sometimes we give up our freedoms,” Dohrman said. “I would like to see this as a stepping stone into having a greater awareness of the Bill of Rights and how they are applied to today’s environment.”

The bill would also help journalists who exercise their First Amendment rights everyday, he said.

“My video was a learning moment for everyone who saw it,” Schierbecker said. “For one week, some of us came together to support journalists and our right to free speech.”

Still, he said the community needs to grow from that experience so it doesn’t happen again.

Missouri already requires harassment and diversity competence training, but Schierbecker said he thinks the university needs to add First Amendment competency to the list.

“Students need to be their own biggest advocates of their right to free speech,” he said. “If this bill passes, my hope is that students begin to educate the professors about what they’ve learned from the course.”

It is not that journalism students don’t assert their First Amendment rights often enough, but that non-journalism students and faculty don’t support these rights, Schierbecker said.

“I doubt most students know much about the Constitution, or the government in general,” Tai said, adding that he thinks the bill would help First Amendment rights be explicitly articulated and understood.

There is also a separate bill pending in Missouri that would guarantee public college and high school student journalists’ right to exercise freedom of the speech and of the press without fear of censorship.

In his bill, Dohrman cited the results of a Pew Research poll, which found that 40 percent of millennials polled believe speech should be restricted or suppressed if it would be considered offensive to minorities. The poll showed that only 27 percent of 35- to 50-year-olds, 24 percent of 51- to 69-year-olds, and 12 percent of 70 to 87-year-olds feel the government should be able to prevent such speech.

Dohrman has said he believes the results of the poll show a trend toward “an ideology which fosters censorship.”

“Older generations are more supportive of the First Amendment, but that statistic needs to be flipped,” Schierbecker said. “Free speech needs to be part of the millennial platform. Students are the generation that stands to gain the most from having it.”

Schierbecker said his video prompted an outpouring of grief from journalists who were frustrated about how difficult the Missouri administration makes it for them to do their jobs.

“I think in order for you to support the First Amendment, you have to understand it,” Schierbecker said.

SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.

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