By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 10, 2015
On the same day as protests by student-athletes over the handling of racist incidents contributed to the resignation of the president of the University of Missouri, attempts by journalists to interview and photograph protestors in a campus quad changed the narrative.
A nearly seven-minute-long video shot by Columbia, Mo., photographer and Mizzou alumnus Mark Schierbecker shows members and sympathizers of the group Concerned Student 1950 vigorously requesting that Tim Tai, a student photojournalist, leave the protestors’ campsite and refrain from taking pictures in the location. Near the end of the clip, the group pushes Tai away from the boundary established by the group. (“It’s our right to walk forward, isn’t it?” a young woman asks in what struck me as a sarcastic tone of voice.) People cheer.
Seconds later, Schierbecker approaches a woman — widely identified as Melissa Click, a communication professor at the university — and says, “I’m media, can I talk to you?”
“No, you need to get out,” Click replies, pointing. “You need to get out.”
“No I don’t,” Schierbecker answers.
“You need to get out,” Click repeats. At this point, she appears to jostle the phone or device Schierbecker was using to record.
“I actually don’t,” Schierbecker says.
“All right,” Click says, turning away. “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.” These last two sentences are shouted to people in the area.
To be clear, Click (a university professor whose salary is paid for by tax dollars) was standing in a quad on the University of Missouri campus (a public space that was built and is maintained by tax dollars) and ordering an individual to leave a public space before soliciting “muscle” with the intent of forcing him to leave a public space.
Concerned Student 1950 had apparently requested that the media stay out of the campsite. After Schierbecker’s video went viral, the group posted this series of tweets on Monday explaining its thinking:
Concerned Student 1950 apparently began deleting some of those tweets Tuesday after I started embedding them in this post. The deleted words seemed to be preserved despite this when I tested out my post, but I’ll transcribe the text of the entire string here in case some of the ghost posts disappear entirely:
There were media personnel who were very hostile toward us when we asked to have certain spaces respected.
It’s typically white media who don’t understand the importance of respecting black spaces.
If you have a problem with us wanting to have our spaces that we create respected, leave!
Black people and our true allies, we love you and will continue to fight.
We truly appreciate having our story told, but this movement isn’t for you.
It is our duty to fight for our freedom!
The campsite is inclusive of all identities has it’s always been, but it was created by black students!
We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, 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
We’re here for community
Marginalized populations are not obligated to educate and converse about our experiences, but we did to make this campus more aware.
With that in mind
The final tweet was accompanied by a photograph of a handwritten sign planted in a lawn that read, “No media — safe space.”
I want to highlight two posts in this sequence, starting with “The campsite is inclusive of all identities [as] it’s always been, but it was created by black students!” Many American institutions and communities were created by white people — by racist white people, to be entirely blunt — but the law ensures that public places may be frequented by people of all kinds and that private businesses must provide equal accommodation to customers of all races, creeds and colors.
If the original intent of American founders were honored to the letter, this would not be the case. Ironically, when Concerned Student 1950 asserted that its intent should be honored to the letter, the group was throwing its lot in with the same dead white land-owning, slave-holding males whom many of its members presumably profess to despise.
The second eye-opener in the string is this: “If you have a problem with us wanting to have our spaces that we create respected, leave!” This is circular logic in the extreme — the equivalent of saying, “If you have a problem with us unilaterally declaring a public space to be closed to members of the public, then please comply with our having unilaterally declaring a public space to be closed to members of the public.”
The members of Concerned Student 1950 who attempted to force anyone to leave the campsite failed to understand the nature of public space. The U.S. Constitution — specifically, the First Amendment — ensures the right of the people to assemble peacefully in public spaces. Generally speaking, this means that Concerned Student 1950 is entitled to gather in a spot on campus and to display any signs that it wishes. But the same law also means that the Ku Klux Klan is entitled to gather in a spot on campus and to display any signs that it wishes.
Thankfully, the same law also ensures that journalists, or anybody else, are free to ignore the posted signs and visit the protest — just as it enables black people, Jews or Catholics to ignore the posted signs at a KKK campsite and visit their protest.
In short, if a group of people want privacy for their gathering, they should hold it on private property; if they wish to avoid publicity, they should avoid holding it on public property. To argue anything else is to undermine — intentionally or otherwise — some of the cornerstones of constitutional freedoms and American democracy.
I was going to end my essay here, but then I noticed a tweet from Reuben Faloughi, a doctoral student in psychology at Mizzou (and, significantly, a former varsity football player at the University of Georgia). The post said, “We plan to learn and educate as we grow #ConceredStudent1950” [sic] and was accompanied by two pictures. One appeared to show an individual removing and/or gathering signs, including the “No media — safe space” placard featured in one of the deleted tweets. The other showed what seemed to be a printed message, which said:
PSA to Campsite Occupants from the Original #ConcernedStudent1950
1. Media has a 1st Amendment right to occupy campsite 2. The media is important to tell our story and experiences at Mizzou to the world 3. Let’s welcome and thank them!
So, a mistake — a serious one — was made, but it has been acknowledged by one or more apparent leaders of Concerned Student 1950, and a corrective effort is apparently under way.
Unfortunately, it seems that this unforced error has drawn the fire of right-wing extremists. So as much as I’d like to say this incident will generate no lasting harm, I fear that it instead will provide more ammunition to conservative talkers — and their enthusiastic followers — who love to portray universities as hotbeds of mindless liberal steeple. We’ll see what happens…